Monday, February 20, 2006

Anthony Minghella's Butterfly

By all accounts, Anthony Minghella's Madama Butterfly at the English National Opera, and soon to open the 2006-2007 Metropolitan Opera season, is a masterpiece. It is innovative, bold, but still very much in the spirit of Puccini and western opera. Edward Seckerson in The Independent wrote that "This Butterfly is at once the simplest and most sumptuous thing we've ever seen in this theatre. It is the meeting of Japanese kabuki and Western opera but shot through with the expensive air and finely tuned manner of a Broadway show. When Butterfly's wedding party arrives, it too rises over a turquoise horizon and processes downstage as if seen through a shimmering heat haze."
He went on to report that the boldest innovation in the production is the use of puppets, in particular with the mute character of Butterfly's child, Sorrow. He writes: "Instead of a child, three wonderful puppeteers breathe tangible life into a little Japanese doll in a sailor suit. The physical detail, the restless, excitable, mother-clinging actions and reactions are such that a child actor could never give us and after a while you stop noticing the puppeteers and, like Butterfly, you see only genuine emotion and need in the impassive doll-face."
To me, the whole concept sounds quite wonderful, and my only concern with this approach to Butterfly is that the production could be swallowed whole by the sheer size of the MET. The London Coliseum is an intimate theater as opera houses go, and the subtleties of a little puppet are perfect for this jewel-box of a theater. Is it possible that it can work at the MET? Sounds to me like the patrons in the orchestra seats will be the ones who will end up receiving the full impact of Mr. Minghella's brilliant concept.

1 comment:

Canadian Basso said...

I really like what I've heard and seen of this Butterfly in terms of cultural mix, and the careful use of color. It's an excellent idea to use this opera as a staging ground for the meeting of Eastern and Western theatrical culture. I can't say I'm a fan of the puppeteering however; it seems an unnecessary distraction.

Of course, one "gets used to" the puppeteers, and eventually manages to ignore them just like any other distraction onstage. That could be an acceptable sacrifice, if one is presenting a core artistic idea or a key concept in the director's mind. But what do the puppets actually bring to this production? What do they mean and why are they there, that they are worth the sacrifice?

So far as I have heard (and without seeing the production, mind) the puppets don't bring ANYTHING clear to the table, except a sense of the avant-garde and some "bold innovation" for it's own sake, or perhaps for the sake of the director's ego. It does not seem a worthwhile trade-off to me.