The prospect of Natalya Romaniw making her role debut as Cio-Cio-san at English National Opera has given the latest revival of Anthony Minghella’s 2005 production of Madam Butterfly an added flutter. The Welsh soprano has been building an impressive career in bringing opera’s tragic women to life in a startlingly vivid way; the uniquely awful story of the heart-broken Japanese girl who commits ritual suicide – albeit inauthentically – was always likely to be movingly depicted in Romaniw’s hands and indeed this was an absolute triumph.

Natalya Romaniw (Cio-Cio-san) © Jane Hobson
Natalya Romaniw (Cio-Cio-san)
© Jane Hobson

Minghella’s Butterfly is a staple of the repertoire and one of ENO’s most popular productions: a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. The focus on spectacle aims unashamedly to draw gasps; the staggered set allows for cinematic entrances, the choreography is elaborate and attractive, and the production’s use of Bunraku – Japanese puppetry – remains disconcertingly brilliant. Three men, clothed in black, animate the doll that represents young Sorrow but seem to fade into the background as the puppet comes to eerie life, particularly jarring when it waves an American flag as Cio-Cio-san prepares for suicide. With an average cast, it can sometimes feel as though the production is geared towards the superficial, but with the right singers, the combination of visual and emotional reaches the right balance. It’s a production that, large spaces aside, can be claustrophobic at times: sightlines deployed to focus attention on a couple of characters irrespective of the surroundings give an intensity to proceedings.

<i>Madam Butterfly</i> at ENO © Jane Hobson
Madam Butterfly at ENO
© Jane Hobson

There’s no doubt that this was Romaniw’s night. Her Butterfly immediately engages without any trace of insipidity. She bears open her vulnerability, her tragically blind dedication to Pinkerton and we sympathise, but her determination and resolve draw the audience to her, inspire just not pity but admiration. She offers not merely a two-dimensional tragic figure, but a woman of genuine courage. Physically she gave a fine performance, absorbing herself entirely into the character with tentative, shy gestures; in particular her easy transition from mannered stillness to unrestrained physicality. Vocally, she was on formidable form, displaying a bright and unforced top and superb phrasing. Her lower register seemed a little occluded on occasion and diction wasn’t razor sharp, but the intensity of her performance conveyed all that was needed.

Natalya Romaniw (Cio-Cio-san) and Dimitri Pittas (Pinkerton) © Jane Hobson
Natalya Romaniw (Cio-Cio-san) and Dimitri Pittas (Pinkerton)
© Jane Hobson

Dimitri Pittas channelled the American sports jock in his Pinkerton, a careless masculine presence with a gleam in the eye at the thought of carefree sex. Pittas’ success was in bringing to the fore the sheer banality of Pinkerton – the facile emptiness of a man incapable of deep thought – and then to make credible Pinkerton’s own stunned realisation of his flaws. Pittas’ tenor sounded a little pinched at the top to begin with, but he relaxed in the third act and his diction was largely clear. Roderick Williams was luxury casting as Sharpless, practically oozing quality from the moment he came on stage, his mellow baritone an ideal fit for the Consul. His Sharpless shifted from the genially avuncular to the quietly devastated, a careful depiction by an experienced hand.

Dimitri Pittas (Pinkerton) and Roderick Williams (Sharpless) © Jane Hobson
Dimitri Pittas (Pinkerton) and Roderick Williams (Sharpless)
© Jane Hobson

Stephanie Windsor-Lewis’ natural empathy elevated Suzuki from a secondary part to a central character. Her warm mezzo carried easily and blended well with Romaniw’s voice. Alasdair Elliott was an immediately dislikeable Goro, an obsequious presence with a trail of oil to his voice. Njabulo Madlala was a strong Yamadori in one of the more striking outfits of the production. Keel Watson’s Bonze was spiteful, but lacking in gravitas. Katie Stevenson was moving in her brief moments as Kate Pinkerton.

Martyn Brabbins is not as known for his Puccini as for, say his Birtwistle, but gave a full-bodied reading of the score. While he did not always wring out every tear from the music, he maintained a studied balance between stage and pit in a score that has on occasion seen singers overwhelmed at the Coliseum. The ENO Chorus was on typically good form and delightfully catty at the wedding in Act 1.

****1