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Madam Butterfly

English National Opera, London Coliseum

ANTHONYMinghella's production of Puccini's Madam Butterfly was much anticipated, but surely nobody could have imagined that it would be staged against a backdrop as dramatic as his greatest moment on the silver screen, The English Patient.

Sackings and resignations at the English National Opera book ended this production and just to add glamour, if that's the right word, to the occasion, Charles and Camilla were guests of honour at a Royal Gala that closed the first run of this production, with another due for 2006.

The drama unfolded when Seán Doran was sacked as artistic director even before the end of his first full season. He would have found it hard to sneak back in to watch this performance any way, such was the security at the London Coliseum. Now I was at the Barbican in 2004 when the Queen and Dukie were guests to celebrate the LSO's 100 years, but you would never have known it such was the low-key security involved.

Either Charlie has had a death threat against him, or security has been stepped up out of all proportion since the 7/7 bombings. We were given an indication of what to expect via a letter sent out a week before the performance. "All members of the audience will have to go through an x-ray arch," it stated, plus we had to be in our seats at 7pm for the 7.30 start. Well, the x-ray machines were more efficient than any at London's airports; nipple and penis rings were certainly not recommended, and the old hip flask was put out of operation.

The production, though, was worth the aggravation. Soprano Mary Plazas, a newcomer to the role of Cio-Cio-San, has the promise to make it her own in the coming years. Her marvellous voice, good diction - there were no surtitles for this production and it remains to be seen whether the ENO will ditch them now Doran has left - and believability when moving from the optimistic, impressionable young woman in love to one scorned by Lieutenant Pinkerton (Gwyn Hughes Jones), her US Navy lover, and who opts for the "honourable" end made this one of the most pleasing debuts in recent times. Jean Rigby gave a stellar performance as Butterfly's companion Suzuki, that most underrated of roles.

Removal of Smith

Minghella's production, with choreography by his wife, Carolyn Choa, was thoughtful, and most impressive was his use of the entire stage.

He uses both the traditional Japanese kabuki theatre and puppetry to enlarge the story, with Butterfly's young son depicted by the latter - well, it ensured some nipper doesn't miss out on his homework. Bravo to that. It is most imaginative and very effective. The sliding panels across the stage allow scenes to progress without interruption. Michael Levine's design is a triumph and David Parry's conducting cannot be faulted.

Butterfly's end, like much of the production, comes in a blaze of colour and gave the ENO something to cheer after a difficult period, even though its chairman, Martin Smith, also took the honourable way out soon after joining Charles and Camilla in the royal box, although less dramatically than Butterfly.

Smith's position became untenable when an open letter calling for his removal was published by leading lights in the world of arts, such as former ENO boss David Pountney, novelist Jeanette Winterson, tenor Philip Langridge, soprano Lesley Garrett and proms director Nicholas Kenyon.

Minghella might just think there are fewer egos in Hollywood than St Martin's Lane.

Review by Peter Wilson


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