- Madama Butterfly
What exactly does a film director who has professed interest in traditional Japanese theater bring to a production of Madama Butterfly? Common tropes in the critical response to Anthony Minghella's staging have included references to his "striking cinematic touches" and his "extensive" engagement with Japanese performance techniques, but without much definition of either being proffered. At a moment when many opera companies appear eager to explore multiple ways of embracing cinema—not least by employing film directors for new productions—Minghella's Butterfly offers an opportunity to consider what a "cinematic" staging might entail.1 Likewise, at a moment when techniques derived from East Asian theater traditions are increasingly encountered in the opera house, it behooves us to reflect on such cross-cultural trends. Minghella's Butterfly was premiered in 2005 by English National Opera and has been adopted by the Metropolitan and the Lithuanian National Opera Company.2 Given its success and probable longevity, it is worth describing in some detail and pondering its possible import for staging opera in the early twenty-first century.
The most immediately striking feature of this production is its use of colored lighting, designed by Peter Mumford. As if to draw attention to this fact, we begin in total darkness (including in the orchestra pit), thus clearing our mental screens in preparation for the curtain. Furthermore, as we are presented with Minghella's first stage image the orchestra remains silent. This arresting move, the longest silence I have experienced at the Met, focuses attention on the visual dimension. (Act 2 also begins with sustained silence after the curtain rises.) The basic stage design serves as a frame for the play of light. The inclined floor is highly polished—resembling a black lacquered box with a hint of the texture of tatami mats—and thus reflects the image of the actors from below. An immense pivoting mirror hangs above the stage, providing both an overhead reflective [End Page 139] ceiling and a mechanism for changing the size of the upstage rectangular backdrop. This blank rectangular space, which reminded me of a large drive-in movie screen, is lit with changing colors and functions, in turn, as a means of expressive symbolism, as naturalistic representation, and as a practical device for focusing attention throughout the production.
A red rectangle—like Butterfly's red obi, the oversized red flowers that she and Suzuki gather in preparation for Pinkerton's return, and the red streamers at her suicide—appears at obvious moments of tragic significance. Aqua also seems to be a negative color, prefiguring tragedy. At the bitter end of the choreographed curtain call, the rectangle changes once more from aqua to red. Orange serves as a neutral color, frequently used when Butterfly is absent. With the intrusion of the Bonze during the wedding festivities, the screen turns a surprising green, enhancing his exotic status. The colored rectangle also serves to signal the passing of time: near the end of the first act it becomes increasingly narrow, moving from blue to the blackness of night when Butterfly prepares for bed. As night approaches again in act 2, an encroaching redness both represents the setting sun and symbolizes the imminent tragedy. Color also plays a significant role in the costuming. Just before Butterfly's first entrance with her companions, the screen darkens, creating a nearly black and white stage. This sets up a coup de théâtre at the instant when Butterfly, in white, and her friends, wearing costumes of searing colorful intensity, appear in a line across the back. This moment is certainly striking, the reconceived kimonos being commensurate with the flamboyant costuming of East Asian theater traditions; and yet the palette of these much...