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Madam Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini at the London Coliseum | Review

Madam Butterfly ENO - Coliseum - Credit Jane Hobson
Madam Butterfly ENO – Coliseum – Credit Jane Hobson

It’s no accident that Puccini wrote Madam Butterfly in 1905. Japan had announced itself on the world stage by defeating Russia. It was the first Asian nation to win a war against a modern industrialized power. It was an event that undermined lazy assumptions of white racial superiority. Puccini’s opera can be seen as a landmark in the dialogue between ‘the West’ and Japan. However, it was to be America, not Russia that proved most influential in shaping modern Japan. Puccini captures this macro power relationship by focusing on the relationship between just two people. An American man and a young Japanese woman. Seen in this way Madam Butterfly is a profoundly prescient and thought-provoking work of art. It stops us in our tracks and forces us to appreciate that other people are as real as we are. Watching this opera which takes place in a house overlooking the harbour of Nagasaki one cannot fail but to think about the terrible events of August 1945. Puccini’s prescient masterpiece was insufficiently appreciated in the first half of the 20th century. Let’s hope that we can all do better in the 21st.

This production is a revival of the late great Anthony Minghella’s 2005 version. Best known as the director of The English Patient (1996) this was the only opera he ever directed. Tragically he died age 54. His filmic eye is all over this production. The set functions like a cinema screen. The colours are magical, with recurring motifs of red, black and white creating powerful associations and emotions which intensify and build to an inevitable terrible finale.

The production weaves together different elements to create a unique experience. I’ve mentioned the brilliant set but that is only one part of a rich mix which also encompasses; puppetry (wonderfully done by the Blind Summit Theatre company), costumes, props (especially the fans which double as cut-throat razors) fine acting, spine-tingling music and singing that soars with raw emotion.

The two leading protagonists are superb. Dimitri Pittas as the American naval officer Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton is spot on. He captures his insensitive arrogance. His voice is excellent. His diction and clarity are pitch-perfect. Natalia Romaniw as the 15-year-old Madam Butterfly is wonderful. On stage for the best part of 2 and a half hours, she never flags. Her embodiment of the part is convincing, compelling and complete. Her singing is clear and audible. The finale is unbearably poignant and painful, powerful and profound.

4 stars

Review by John O’Brien

Anthony Minghella’s Olivier Award-winning production returns to the London Coliseum. His staging combines cinematic images and traditional Japanese theatre.

In Puccini‘s story of unrequited love, Cio-Cio San, a young Japanese girl, falls in love and marries American naval officer Pinkerton. He goes back to the US before the birth of their son leaving Cio-Cio San to await his return.

Natalya Romaniw, last season’s acclaimed Mimì (La bohème) at ENO, sings the title role for the first time in London.

She is joined by tenors Dimitri Pittas and Adam Smith who share the role of Pinkerton.

Leading British baritone Olivier Award-nominated Roderick Williams is Sharpless. Mezzo Stephanie Windsor-Lewis returns as Suzuki.

Conducting this revival is ENO Music Director Martyn Brabbins.

Co-production with the Metropolitan Opera, New York, and the Lithuanian National Opera

Some material in this production may not be suitable for young children.

Booking to 17th April 2020


  • John OBrien

    JOHN O’BRIEN born in London in 1960 is a born and bred Londoner. His mother was an illiterate Irish traveller. His early years were spent in Ladbroke Grove. He was born at number 40 Lancaster Road. In 1967 the family was rehoused in Hackney. He attended Brooke House School for Boys in Clapton, - as did Lord Sugar. He became head boy and was the first person in his family to make it to university, gaining a place at Goldsmiths College in 1978. He took a degree in Sociology and a PGCE . From 1982 until 1993 he taught at schools in Hackney and Richmond. In 1984-85 he attended Bristol University where he gained a Diploma in Social Administration. From 1985 until 1989 he studied part-time in the evenings for a degree in English Literature at Birkbeck College. He stayed on at Birkbeck from 1990-1992 to study for an MA in Modern English Literature. He left teaching in 1993 and has worked as a tutor, researcher, writer and tour guide. He leads bespoke guided tours on London’s history, art , architecture and culture. He has attended numerous courses at Oxford University - Exeter College, Rewley House & Kellogg College. In London, he attends courses at Gresham College, The National Gallery, The British Museum, The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, The British Academy and The Royal Society. Read the latest London theatre reviews by all reviewers.

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