Anthony Minghella directed just one opera production before his tragically early death in 2008, but his visualisation of Puccini’s culture-clash classic, launched in 2005 in association with his wife, Carolyn Choa, as both associate director and choreographer, has proved to have real staying power. Eleven years after its premiere, it still packs an almighty punch.
On this occasion, this is partly due to the presence in the pit of conductor Sir Richard Armstrong, who conveys both the grandest overview of Puccini’s emotion-laden score as well as the fineness of its most intimate details. ENO’s orchestra plays superbly for him.
But the production has strong visual credentials, too, including several moments of sheer and unforgettable beauty. Choa’s choreography and the intricate work of the puppeteers of Blind Summit Theatre offer authentic Japanese counterpoints to the opera’s Western elements, embodying the irreconcilable culture-clash at its heart, while revival director Sarah Tipple misses nothing in her traversal of its inescapable narrative trajectory.
This revival is fortunate in its cast, too. Soprano Rena Harms maintains consistent expressive power as well as beauty of tone throughout the exhaustingly lengthy challenge of the title role. David Butt Philip offers exciting tenor singing and a resourcefully convincing exploration of the craven Pinkerton. Mezzo Stephanie Windsor-Lewis makes an auspicious company debut as Suzuki, demonstrating the centrality of this crucial supporting role. Baritone George von Bergen brings gravitas to Consul Sharpless.
Vital secondary roles – Matthew Durkan’s dignified Yamadori, Mark Richardson’s terrifying Bonze – achieve their proper impact. Samantha Price uncovers a great deal in her brief but telling appearance as Kate Pinkerton.
The Bunraku puppet portraying Butterfly’s child Sorrow remains the show’s most idiosyncratic element, but so skilful are its operators that their work underscores rather than undermines the fatal potency of Puccini’s devastating musical drama.