To describe the spectacle of an operatic blockbuster such as Madam Butterfly in cinematic terms is certain to rankle, but the odd cliché is inevitable when it has been overseen by the likes of Anthony Minghella. In this case – a revival of the late director’s lauded production of 2005, directed here by Sarah Tipple – the comparison is positively invited; filmic language forms an integral part of the rhetorical apparatus and is responsible, in part, for a good deal of the show’s force and beauty.
For starters, the mise-en-scene is highly rectilinear, seeking to compress stage space and restrict movement to the horizontal plane; the denial of an steep incline at the rear of the set through lighting and gradation means that descending performers appear more vertical in impetus than recessional. As a result, the opera seems to teeter above the pit – it tickles the surface of the fourth-wall like static on an oscilloscope.
In addition to this radical flattening – which refers also to the woodcuts of Hokusai, Hiroshige and friends – great importance is assigned to projected light. The set is soaked with blocky, uniform colour, which forms picturesque and startling contrasts: it picks-out the edge of paper fans as they snap shut; it whittles daggers and warps the contours of characters as they pass behind the ubiquitous shoji screens. Everything shimmers. But it is in the treatment of another understanding of the term ‘projection’ – the one espoused by film theorists and psychoanalysts alike –that this rendition of Puccini’s tale gets really interesting.
The staging stresses the increasingly desperate attempts of Butterfly to shore-up the edifice of her delusions. The abandoned bride, awaiting the return of her traitorous beloved, begins to shield herself from reality in favour of another world of her creation. A tension between interior and exterior space is established.
Only her wedding scene is set out of doors; thereafter, she is enclosed behind paper screens, sliding these around in order to banish those who seek to challenge her fantasy. The wooden chest in which she locks away her precious belongings comes to symbolise this predicament. These items relate to her cultural heritage and family history, things that she cannot wholly overcome despite her longing for the Occident. But there is also a mirror and some makeup, which stand for her image and her attempt to secure the means to change. And indeed, it is in part this introspect, this inevitable encounter with the buried kernel of her being, that proves to be Butterfly’s undoing.
When reality does intrude, its suppression gives rise to some memorable moments. These take the form of dream sequences, depicted through dance and puppetry. These vignettes are poignant, the movements of the puppets delivered with delicate precision and economy. Nor does the Bunraku puppeteers’ role end there – they are omnipresent, drifting around the stage in order shift scenery and objects and thereby underscoring the illusionary nature of events. Such scenes occur, of course, well beyond the walls of Butterfly’s partition; they are the irrepressible remainder of her psychic system, logically impossible to her reason. That her son – the one physical affirmation of her relationship with the American Officer – has been granted this form is particularly cutting.
Dina Kuznetsova makes an impressive Butterfly. The soprano’s gestural acting invites us to relate intimately with the character despite the colossal scale of all around; her body language at the finale evokes all the dread and menace of a J-horror flick. Timothy Richards’ Pinkerton struggles to be heard above the orchestra and almost seems too likable for the absconding devil the role demands, but in a counterintuitive way this works in this context. As the lynchpin in Butterfly’s delusional framework, it seems fitting that the myth she creates of him far outstrips the man. Returning from the States to reclaim his son, he cuts a diminutive figure – dwarfed by her rage, her grief, and the music that envelops them.
But there is risk in this. Whilst Minghella’s take on the source material restores to Butterfly some of the dignity of self-determination, the absence of a strong counterpoint risks going too far in the other direction. At times, Tipple’s revival seems to afford her too much of the blame, unwittingly positing something sinister in the heart of her femininity. But this is something that may be ironed out as the run continues, and certainly takes nothing away from the sheer pleasure of it.