A Russian/Californian in London: “Madame Butterfly” by the English National Opera

With this post, writer/composer/singer Ella Leya begins her International Review of Music reports on the cultural view from London and beyond.

By Ella Leya

London.  It’s been a few months since I left the gold-and-sapphire paradise of the Southern California Rivera and arrived at the rainy, smoky, dressed-in-tarnished-iron and moldy stone banks of river Thames. A move much desired and anticipated since the first time I crossed the Atlantic Ocean twenty years ago – an emigrant from the then Soviet Union – and landed in… well, Norfolk, Virginia. Neatly cut grass lawns, smiling faces, suburban flare – everything I had never seen before, neither in my hometown Baku, nor during my jazz tenure in Moscow. But not exactly what I had envisioned to be America.

Soon after, I progressed to Chicago, IL., then Laguna Beach, CA, all while missing dear old Europe with its cultural abundance and familiar non-American uncultivated lifestyle. Of course, in the process I failed to notice how American I had become. Indeed, we humans make those kinds of transformations better than lizards – shed our tails at dusk and grow a new one before dawn.

Mine grew so California lavish and Chicago comfy that it instantly got clipped as a part of London’s no-nonsense welcome. A huge, self-absorbed, swarming beehive of people from all over the world – half from Arabia and the other half from Eastern Europe.  Young, ruthless, with strong fangs, indoctrinated with Mark Zuckerberg ambitions and quite often blessed with Maria Sharapova looks. All going about their business amid a nucleus of rigid, proper, Elizabeth the First’s England.

I tried to escape into long desired and missed cultural abundance, but got drowned in a big puddle the moment I stepped foot in the West End. My head spun as I tried to follow a kaleidoscope of theater bills with their repetitious quotes from the same three papers, in which a handful of critics gloated with praise – “the best ever,” “the first time ever,” “triumph of theatrical experience,” “the most innovating,” “the never before seen…”

How in the world could I make a decision? After all, In California, I was accustomed to a schedule of four-great-dances and a couple of concerts packaged for me and delivered to the conveniently nearby Orange County Performing Arts Center.

Drenched and frustrated, I came back to my London flat and began packing my suitcase, ready to depart for the safe enclave of my home in Laguna Beach. But, as I was ready to send Time Out London magazine into the trash, a beautiful picture caught my attention. A woman wrapped in red silks against the red glow of a sunset. Madame Butterfly.   Opera by Puccini, performed by the English National Opera at London’s Coliseum. In English.

What? A Puccini opera in English? Didn’t make sense to me.

The London Coliseum from the Dress Circle

But I went. Last Saturday. And London will never be the same for me.

First of all – the Coliseum, a majestic palace and London’s largest theater.  It rose at the beginning of the 20th century on St. Martin’s Lane, featuring my favorite art deco elements. And it felt like my new home the moment I landed at my seat in the center of the Dress Circle.

Mary Plazas as Cio-Cio San

Then the magic began. With that very image that had spurred my interest. Mary Plazas as Cio-Cio-San, dressed in a traditional kimono, in a slow, eloquent dance with two golden fans, emerged on stage, out of a red glow of sunlight.  A beautiful butterfly, her wings caught in the flames of love, trailing, being wrapped into long red silks of blood. With no music. With lots of air. An introduction to the show and a quick synopsis of Madame Butterfly’s story.

The captain of an American ship, while stationed in Japan, marries a young geisha for convenience. Soon the captain, portrayed effectively by John Fanning, departs for America. For three years Cio-Cio-San longs for his return, bears their son, then gives the child up to be raised in American prosperity by her wretched, disloyal husband and his new lawful American wife. While she commits hara-kiri.

The production was sweepingly cinematic.  Not like on a huge Cinerama screen but in a three-dimensional way, with no sense of stage limitations. And minimalist to the bare bone. With no palaces, forests, and ships cut out of plywood and propped on stage to look fancy. Nothing but the dark, shiny, ascending floorboards of the stage.  A large, sloped mirror ceiling reflecting the characters.  Brilliant light bursting through a rectangular, letter box gap, rivaling the sunset and the sea, with a few moving Japanese screens and flying lanterns. And, of course, gorgeous traditional Japanese costumes detailing every flower in a blossoming spring garden.

But the character who stole my heart was Madame Butterfly’s son, a puppet manipulated by three ascetic figures in black. So tender and expressive were his movements as he picked up the flowers for his mother, rested his head in her lap, stared lovingly at her, that I had tears in my eyes, wishing for my own son to communicate even a small portion of that same tenderness.

Not once during two and a half hours of the show did I question the sincerity of Cio-Cio-San’s love. (Though, once or twice, when her American lover aimed at a high vibrato note, I wondered why she would love him.  But that’s me – not a big fan of the leading tenors.)  Nor did I question Puccini’s tuneful melodrama, in part thanks to the smooth, sophisticated cruising through the score by the ENO Orchestra with charming Oleg Caetani at its helm.

But most of all because of the genius of the late Anthony Minghella, who directed this stunning masterpiece, together with his wife, Hong Kong-born choreographer Carolyn Choa. Unfortunately, it was Anthony Minghella’s only opera, Instead, he’s been known and  hailed internationally as the Oscar-winning director and writer of English Patient and BAFTA-winning The Talented Mr. Ripley, two of the most captivating films of the last fifteen years.

As I was leaving the Coliseum, into the sun and the crowds of people in St. Martin’s Lane, I stopped by the box office and bought tickets for every show of the English National Opera and Ballet for the rest of the season. A good place to start sinking my teeth into big, wondrous London.

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