Cardinal Crimes

By Tanner, Michael | The Spectator, November 19, 2005 | Go to article overview

Cardinal Crimes


Tanner, Michael, The Spectator


Madam Butterfly Coliseum Figaro Glyndebourne on Tour

In my view, and I think that of a fair proportion of opera goers, Madam Butterfly occupies a unique position in Puccini's oeuvre. None of his other operas can seriously be entertained for tragic status, but Butterfly can and should be. Because its idiom is instantly recognisable, it is easy to assimilate it to the other works, perhaps above all to La Bohème. And then the inevitable invocation of sex, sadism and sentimentality happens, and the elements that make Butterfly a tragic masterpiece get overlooked, or sneered at. With a little attention, however, its amused denigrators might note that, though Butterfly is one of Puccini's 'little women', she is much more than that. In the huge second act of the opera we see her growing in stature as one incident and encounter follows another, until in the final suicide scene she has attained to a grandeur and pathos which place her beside any heroine in the genre.

If we are to realise that, and if the work is to make its full impact on us, it is essential that it be pared down to essentials.

Visit the Coliseum for ENO's new production of it by Anthony Minghella and you'll witness a classic case of a staging and production which unfalteringly neglect essentials in the interests of irrelevant and in the end disgusting prettification -- among other abuses. The action, on a raised platform with plenty of sliding doors, is reflected in a huge overhanging mirror -- just as that of Un Ballo in Maschera is at the Royal Opera, just revived: fashions are unashamed. That gives everything a symmetry it shouldn't have, and also helps our attention to wander.

There are lots of colourful costumes, lots of people wandering around the stage at the drama's most intimate moments. As the Act I love duet moves towards its wonderful climax, instead of the stars coming out, extras appear carrying Chinese lanterns, making sure we aren't moved. But Minghella and Michael Levine, the set designer, are only getting into their stride at that stage. One of the most electrifying moments in the score is Butterfly's bringing on her small son, to show how American he is. He remains for much of the action, and Butterfly sings her passionate farewell to him. Here he is taken by a puppet, manipulated by three tall people, veiled and in black, who hover round it all the time, waving its arms, turning its head, and so on.

That by itself is enough to sink the show. …

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