The week in classical: Madam Butterfly; The Angel Esmeralda – review

Coliseum; Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London
Welsh soprano Natalya Romaniw triumphs in the title role of ENO’s latest revival of Anthony Minghella’s still ravishing Madam Butterfly

Iridescent blue, bilious green, orange, violet, black, blood-red. In English National Opera’s spectacular staging of Puccini’s Madam Butterfly (1904), the language of colour is as eloquent as the action it symbolises. Anthony Minghella’s much-loved production, new in 2005, is back for its seventh revival (directed by Glen Sheppard) and still holds its magnetic power. The British film-maker died in 2008. It’s a continuing regret that this was his only work in opera. Some may find its lush cinematic gestures and puppeteers too much, a needless glaze on a work that churns with its own potent imagery. When the cast holds the stage as powerfully as here, the union of music and staging is near ideal.

The Welsh soprano Natalya Romaniw, already an ENO favourite, sang the title role of Cio-Cio San. She has the combination of vocal steel, physical stillness and an ability to sing softly yet with control. Against the odds, you can believe she is indeed a fragile, impoverished 15-year-old Japanese virgin in Nagasaki, as resolute as she is innocent. That credibility is the secret of a great Butterfly. Her love for the American naval officer Pinkerton is as real as her knowledge, however suppressed, of his perfidy. Romaniw’s performance has no fluttering fans (though elegantly choreographed fan-work features elsewhere), shuffling feet or any other gesture that could be interpreted as wrongly “oriental”.

This opera by an Italian composer was based on a play by an American (David Belasco), in turn taken from a short story by another American, inspired by the experience of his sister who had been to Japan with her husband, a Methodist missionary. Disentangling issues of historical cultural appropriation, always alive with productions of this work, now seems less urgent than seeing the work for its basic, and base, humanity. No one needs to say #MeToo. Puccini writes it into every note of the score, expertly judged and paced by Martyn Brabbins, with sensuous, turbulent playing from ENO’s orchestra. Pinkerton’s voice is high-lying, verging on the bullying and petulant – perhaps not quite to the degree the American tenor Dimitri Pittas delivered on first night; some quieter singing would add depth.

Natalya Romaniw (Cio-Cio San) and Dimitri Pittas (Pinkerton) in Madam Butterfly.
Natalya Romaniw (Cio-Cio San) and Dimitri Pittas (Pinkerton) in Madam Butterfly. Photograph: Jane Hobson

In contrast, the troubled consul Sharpless is softer-grained and reflective, especially as sung, beautifully, by the baritone Roderick Williams. Butterfly is Pinkerton’s plaything, his toy, his child bride, until he finds a real, grown-up American bride. The consul perceives all. So too does the maid Suzuki, played with generous wisdom by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Windsor-Lewis. Alasdair Elliott’s Goro, Keel Watson’s Bonze, Njabulo Madlala’s Prince Yamadori, and Katie Stevenson, compressing so much pain and conflict into the tiny role of Kate Pinkerton, completed the ensemble. Michael Levine’s designs, Han Feng’s stunning costumes, Peter Mumford’s lighting, Carolyn Choa’s choreography and the puppetry of Blind Summit Theatre still stand up to scrutiny. There are many seats available, between now and April. Go and fill them.

The young Scottish composer Lliam Paterson’s new opera, The Angel Esmeralda, twangs into life with an electric guitar solo: no standard orchestra, this, but one with two keyboards, two tuned percussion, saxophones and electric harp. Hearing this work so soon after John Adam’s Nixon in China, with that work’s sophisticated slip-knot rhythms, you hear echoes. Paterson’s own compositional voice is assured and lyrical, but not yet so distinctive. In a union between Scottish Opera, which commissioned the work, and Guildhall School of Music and Drama, The Angel Esmeralda was given its world premiere on Monday, conducted by Dominic Wheeler.

We’re now so reliant on surtitles in opera, we can feel adrift without them, however expert the diction of all concerned. I didn’t know Don DeLillo’s short story before encountering Paterson’s opera on which it is based, to a libretto by Pamela Carter. The blurb – set in the violent Bronx in the 1970s; a “mysterious girl” disappears – promised action enough. Instead, the internal worlds of an old nun wedded to tradition and a young nun committed to social change are key to the drama. It’s more cantata than opera. The in-the-round staging, skilfully directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans though it was, further splintered the work’s theatrical integrity.

Harriet Burns and Elsa Roux Chamoux in The Angel Esmeralda.
Harriet Burns and Elsa Roux Chamoux in The Angel Esmeralda. Photograph: Mihaela Bodlovic

Paterson (b1991), responsible for the ingenious babies’ opera BambinO, writes idiomatically for voice. Stirring choral set pieces, and a smaller group of five “Observers” – each an excellent soloist – frame the nuns’ discourse. In the first cast, Elsa Roux Chamoux, fervent as the older sister, Edgar, and Harriet Burns, equipped with great coloratura skills as Grace, showed huge promise. What was the impulse for this collaboration? On further inquiry, it turns out that the work started life on a smaller scale. Guildhall opera school worked with the composer to expand the piece, giving more opportunities for principals and orchestra. A rewarding training project may yet have diluted rather than concentrated the original creative instinct.

Star ratings (out of five)
Madam Butterfly
The Angel Esmeralda ★★★

Madam Butterfly is in rep at the Coliseum, London, until 17 April


Fiona Maddocks

The GuardianTramp

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