21 May 2012

Madam Butterfly at ENO

Madam Butterfly is an opera that I've somehow missed until now and it is only because some friends wanted to go that I caught the current production at ENO.

I was avoiding a popular opera on the grounds that it was popular and I prefer difficult and quirky but popular can be good too, and Madam Butterfly most definitely was.

It is a slow lyrical piece with a simple story that has an unhappy ending if you consider Madam Butterfly's point of view but which works out quite well for her husband and son.

It's the familiar story of man meets ridiculously young girl in a foreign country, gets married on a whim, goes back to sea for a few years, returns with another wife and takes his son from his first marriage away with him. First wife takes this badly.

The action is slow and measured and most of the singing is about how Madam Butterfly feels, which is deliriously happy, expectant and distraught in that order.

The rest of the cast are there mainly to nudge the story forward and to give Madam Butterfly something to sing about or somebody to sing with.

The production is simple, clever and sumptuous.

Sliding screens allow us to move through the house where Mr and Mrs Pilkington (as they become) live.

Figures in dark robes manipulate the props which include a doll that plays the part of the Pilkington's son and white lanterns that mark the passage of time.

While the set is simple the costumes are rich, vibrant and colourful.

The stage slopes upward and the players mostly have their exits and entrances from the back processing slowly and majestically as they do so.

Madam Butterfly is not far off being a one trick pony in that it hangs on the performance of the singer in the title role and Mary Plazas is an excellent pony.

The ending is sad (this is an opera after all) but the lasting impression is of the show's beauty.

There was much to savour and applaud about the design and while it is unfair to do so I'll pick just one example to try and make the point. The show opens with a solitary Madam Butterfly on stage and four dark robed people took two long pieces of red silk and slowly wrapped this around her waist to complete her costume. At the end the process is reversed except this time the red silk is the blood flowing from her body.

It seems that there is a good reason why Madam Butterfly is so popular, especially in a production as luscious as this one. It's faultless. More that that, it's sublime.

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