Anthony Minghella's 2005 staging of Madam Butterfly remains a hit with ENO's audience. A combination of Japanese lacquer and Hollywood gloss make for a stylish production, opulently costumed by Han Feng. Now receiving its sixth revival, it doesn't always tug at the heartstrings. In the same way the bunraku puppeteers bring Butterfly's child Sorrow to life, one consciously feels manipulated. Puccini's music manipulates the emotions too – he was a wily fox – but it's music that still touches deeply. However, it requires a far better performance of the title role than it received this evening.

Ayano Honda © Tom Bowles
Ayano Honda
© Tom Bowles

Michael Levine’s steep raked set allows most of the characters to make their entrances and exits over the brow of a hill, often to spectacular visual effect. And striking visual effects are what mark this production. Minghella, in what tragically turned out to be his sole opera, brought his skilled film director’s eye to proceedings, creating a cinematic widescreen frame in front of which veiled kuroko actors wheel the paper screens (shoji) round to create the house Pinkerton has purchased on a 999-year lease. Dancers are skilfully employed, choreographed by Carolyn Choa; a dumb show at the beginning, where a single silhouetted dancer flutters a pair of fans and is swathed in streams of scarlet (anticipating Butterfly’s suicide) while, later, another, representing Pinkerton, dances with a puppet Cio-Cio-San as origami swallows herald the dawn during Butterfly’s ‘dream’. The close of Act I is a touching ballet of floating lanterns before a backdrop of cascading cherry blossom.

Rena Harms (Cio-Cio San) and Sorrow © Tom Bowles
Rena Harms (Cio-Cio San) and Sorrow
© Tom Bowles
Reactions vary to the controversial decision to have Sorrow, Butterfly's child, played by a puppet (courtesy of Blind Summit). The puppeteers quickly become invisible, but you may find the antics of the child distract the eye away from the singers. It is so artfully done though – plucking flowers, staring enraptured at the birds – that I succumb each time. The other, more detrimental, decision splits the two scenes of Act II with an interval. It's a solution which Puccini himself reached in Brescia in 1904 after the opera’s disastrous première, but later reversed. The flow of the action is quite needlessly interrupted, even if you accept that the Humming Chorus will inevitably draw applause anyway.

Disappointingly, the singers were frequently drowned by an overloud orchestra, swept along on a tsunami of decibels under the brusque baton of Sir Richard Armstrong. Making her role debut as Cio-Cio San was American soprano Rena Harms, returning to ENO for the first time since her Amelia in Simon Boccanegra in 2011. Alas, she is no more a Puccini soprano than a Verdi soprano. Butterfly really needs spinto power, but Harms' light lyric is thin and lacks evenness, so that when she pushes, her voice becomes shrill. Consonants were frequently swallowed too, meaning that surtitles were crucial – criminal in a company which places singing in the vernacular at its core.

Rena Harms (Cio-Cio San) and David Butt Philip (Pinkerton) © Tom Bowles
Rena Harms (Cio-Cio San) and David Butt Philip (Pinkerton)
© Tom Bowles

David Butt Philip sang a very fine Pinkerton, if on the small side for a house as vast as the Coliseum at this stage in his career. His tenor was evenly produced and he phrased sensitively, particularly in “Our refuge was full of peace” (Addio, fiorito asil). His thoroughly English demeanour, though, meant that his Pinkerton came across as far less of a bastard than usual, an almost sympathetic character. George von Bergen's Sharpless was beautifully sung and sensitively acted, his exasperation at failing to complete the reading of Pinkerton’s letter most touching. Stephanie Windsor-Lewis sang a warmly sympathetic Suzuki, while Matthew Durkan's Yamadori impressed among the minor roles. The brief scene where prince, consul and marriage-broker (Alun Rhys-Jenkins' slippery Goro) fear for what will happen when Butterfly finally sees Pinkerton again was poignantly done.

Minghella's production, with its striking visuals, impresses more than it necessarily moves, but is still one of ENO's more bankable revivals and goodness knows, it needs plenty of them right now.