We look at the latest interpretation of this everlasting story of unrequited love at ENO London.
The performance is barely eighteen minutes in, before there is the soupçon of tears in my eyes. The mesmeric Natalya Romaniw as Cio Cio San, has hardly set foot on stage.
The irony is that as the opera unfolds, Natalya is well able to hold the stage , on her own, her note perfect and pure singing just reaches out to you and I in the audience, the look of innocence, of trust – she does not need her co-conspirators, uncles, families,
Even before her entrance, we already know from Dimitri Pittas as the totally convincing Pinkerton, his throwaway remarks about marriage – that this story line has ended before it has begun.
And yet there is hope. After the deep red of the Japanese graphic, following the earlier production back in 2015 and in my photo above from the cover of a programme of that time – and with the lone silent dancer drifting up and onto the enormous stage, with nobody in any doubt that this is a story based on Japanese custom and not western mores – suddenly , we are off.
The orchestra hits the ground running. We are moving at a fast pace. It reminds me of North by North West. I’m expecting the clipped tones of Cary Grant. But Pinkerton sounds nothing like Roger Thornhill.
The direction and clever use of panels to metamorphose from one scene and mood to another, is as fluid as I remember, the sudden orchestra crescendos to remind you that fate is playing us here, and the classic volume of sound that is such a hallmark of every ENO production.
Yes, there are the groups of supporting cast, with Stephanie Windsor Lewis excelling as the constant Suzuki. But “Madame Butterfly” is essentially about two people. It lives or dies on the chemistry of Cio Cio San and Pinkerton. Everyone knows the story line. The question is not how will this romantic moment end, but will it convince us that we are there too.
It does not disappoint. The closing first act is as good as any I have seen, very tender, – and you wonder if just maybe, Pinkerton will have a change of heart.
I look around me in the audience. There is the mum with her younger daughter, both eager to be part of this witnessing from a distance. Just alongside are an older couple, they lean forward and talk to their friends in the row adjacent. A lady stands up during the interval to take a photograph of the rows and tiers of this magnificent theatre.
The secret sauce of this Madame Butterfly and its longevity, is the delivery by the performers of a convincing whole, that ENO has long since known how to convey. But it is also the understanding by all of us on both sides of the stage, that Madame Butterfly is a musical story and a lesson of morality. It reaches out to all of us. Despite its tragedy, we want to be part of it. If ever there was a story made for opera, this is it.