The late Anthony Minghella’s 2005 production of Madam Butterfly is unashamedly cinematographic in style. At the centre of its box-like set, there’s a rectangular, letter box gap filled with coloured light, designed to draw the eye, and at times it almost feels as if the performers are bursting through a cinema screen and coming to life.
Minghella’s production is not, however, all about large, sweeping gestures, and his attention to detail is evident throughout. Dark shiny floorboards cover the stage, while a large mirror slopes diagonally above so that the audience can always see the reflections of the characters, even when they’re standing behind paper doors – this is a world in which little can be hidden.
The first Act was not without its problems. At times it feels as if there is a mismatch between the sparse, almost clinical set, and the colourful, exquisitely detailed costumes of the Japanese women. This approach, this visual clutter, can sometimes feel more confusing than enlightening. Oleg Caetani’s conducting initially doesn’t seem to possess sufficient charge and Mary Plazas, as Butterfly, and Gwyn Hughes Jones, as Pinkerton, also take a little time to warm up.
Yet by the end of Act One, as Butterfly submits to Pinkerton on their wedding night, everything has come together. Caetani hits his stride, conducting with greater aplomb, and the staging becomes even more beautiful, a series of paper lanterns surrounding the lovers as the lights dim. Plazas’ voice balances maturity with tenderness and an intelligent attention to phrasing, and in ‘One beautiful day’ she conveys a sense of dreamy longing tempered by a cast-iron conviction that Pinkerton will return. Hughes Jones captures the lieutenant’s brash, carefree persona, as well as his not inconsiderable sense of shame at the end; John Fanning is also a suitably compassionate Sharpless, and Pamela Helen Stephen an effective Suzuki.
Act Two is even more powerful. The design of Butterfly’s house provides a coherent insight into her world. The role of her son is played by a puppet operated by three figures in black and created by the ubiquitous Blind Summit. He’s fascinating to watch, whether picking flowers, being lifted high in the air by his mother, or simply gazing around in wonder. Despite his expressionless face, the final image of him blindfolded and waving an American flag, totally oblivious to the fact of his mother’s death, is incredibly moving.
Butterfly’s death is a highly emotional scene in and of itself, taking place on a bare stage, making much of her isolation. The impressive stagecraft even extends to the curtain call that follows, making this a production that’s intelligent, polished and visually striking right up until the very end.