Friday 12 June 2009

Transient convenience

Madam Butterfly, English National Opera, Coliseum, London

The opera starts with silence. On a lacquer-black stage, a woman performs a delicate dance with paper fans, formal gestures that sometimes hint at exotic, opaque rituals and sometimes suggest the wings of butterflies. Then the orchestra begins the soaring build of the overture, rectangular paper screens begin their choreography reflected in the black roof panel, and the stage is set before our eyes.

The late Anthony Minghella consciously drew on Eastern theatre styles for this production. Behind and around the main characters, black-suited figures glide, moving screens and cascading cloth across the stage. As the paper walls slide to and fro, it seems almost superfluous for Lieutenant FB Pinkerton of the United States Navy to sing to Consul Sharpless about the transient convenience of both his rental arrangements and his imminent marriage to a Japanese girl.

It’s a simple story, at once universal and specific to its setting. Pinkerton takes on Cio-Cio-San, or Butterfly, as his temporary wife while he’s stationed in Nagasaki. But after his departure, she waits for him to return. Since we know from his opening scene that Pinkerton plans to marry an American woman, it can only end in tragedy. Butterfly not only has her heart broken, but is rejected by her family for having embraced Christianity and loses everything.

Just over a century old, the opera now has all sorts of resonances that Puccini never foresaw. Pinkerton’s cheerful singing – with snatches of the Star Spangled Banner thrown into his melody – about the American way of taking what you want from other nations, now fits only too comfortably into today’s critiques of US imperialism. The setting, Nagasaki, would once have conjured images of debauched sailors and exotic immorality. Now it’s impossible to dispel the thought of the American atom bomb dropped on the town.

So it’s to Minghella’s credit that he lets the work speak for itself. The clash of cultures, Pinkerton striding around in his white suit as Cio-Cio-San and her family shine like flowers in colourful robes, is true to the score, which uses contrasts of both orchestration and tonality between East and West.

The simplicity of the story leaves plenty of room for visual poetry. Flocks of paper birds on long sticks rise and wheel over the garden, and the menacing entrance of Butterfly’s uncle, the Bonze, is accompanied by twirling black ribbons wielded by the black-veiled puppeteer chorus. At times, their ninja-like presence is distracting. Using Bunraku-style puppets – doll figures with several operators – can feel pointless. What does it add that a real child could not do?

There’s a Peter Brook feel to the way simple objects create a picture. The love duet that ends Act One has the white-clothed newly-weds surrounded by white lanterns that move with them, while flecks that could be sparks, or stars, or butterflies, rain down from above. It’s daringly simple.

But Peter Brook’s productions were ensemble pieces done with simple props in an empty space, not with all the resources of an opera house. Why draw attention to the artifice like this, when all these things could fly in and out without seeing a human hand at work?

There’s a premeditated, formal style to this production that seems at odds with the soaring emotion of the music. But instead of undermining the power of the opera, it gives it room to breathe. ‘I am a coward, I am weak’, sings Pinkerton, and reflected above him we see the sleeping form of Butterfly, in her wedding white, behind the paper screen. Among all the trappings of culture, one flawed man is realising the consequences of his actions.

By letting the singers carry their story, Minghella invites the audience to step in and fill the space with our own imagination. So any resonances that we bring to a hundred-year-old work are ours, not imposed by the production. So Madam Butterfly, not pinned down by a director’s own obsessions, takes flight.


Till 8 July 2009


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