Reviews for Low Life - Edinburgh 2005
Timeout Critic's Choice - 24.1.06
Short-listed for Total Theatre Award - Edinburgh Fringe 2005
Make My Day, The Metro 8.8.05 - “the ultimate hangover cure”
Today’s Picks, The Guardian 9.8.05 - “Almost your last chance for Blind Summit's wonderful puppets: mad, bad and beautiful in equal measure”
THE GUARDIAN****, Monday August 8, 2005
He's right to describe the show as beautiful. The puppets are exquisite,
not least the chiselled Marlene Dietrich lookalike, whose gold velvet
gown drapes voluptuously to the floor. And so elegantly, vibrantly choreographed
is their animation that they radiate character. We sense the resourcefulness
of the tiny puppet in the Mission Impossible sequence, as he clambers
over chairs and leaps through the air; we melt at the sight of the businessman
barfly, cradling his last beer of the evening as Jacques Brel croons Ne
Me Quittes Pas. "Never fall in love with a puppet," Blind Summit
advise, but they make it awfully hard not to fall in love with theirs.
TIMEOUT*****, Wed Jan 25th, 2006
The inspiration for the show, we are told, is the writign of Charles Bukowski, Beat poet emeritus and chronicler of the down and out. Thus, the human principals are a barman, a drunk, a manand a dog. The feeling of low end oppression hangs over the tales they tell too, of a thwarted toper, a cleaner who finds escape in a book, an ill fated superhero plumber and a faded actress.
All these characters are represented by puppets, built by Blind Sumit designer Nick Barnes. Beautiful in themselves, they attain a magical grace in the hands of the company. It's partly their multi-jointed realism - check the way the confused drunkard double-takes and clambers around the place, or the pacy, action heroics of the plumber. But such technical meticulousness only provides a base for surreal moments that catch the breath, as when the cleaner takes to the air in inspired fantasy.
The Summiteers play too with the relationship between manipulator and
manipulated. The puppeteers don't attempt to hide from sight. Their charges
openly acknowledge their presence and purpose. Still, the wooden-tops
keep up an aura of autonomy that's oddly fitting with the last chance
setting, a dignity in spite of their beaten, slavish status. Perhaps that's
what the casat are getting at in the annoyingly Delphic addresses that
punctuate the sketches. Perhaps not. Who cares? Great puppets.
He’s no Spitting Image-style caricature either. The face bears an intensely ironical expression, accentuated by the furrows alongside the mouth, that is pure Spacey. An alcoholic who mistakes his wife for a dog, Kevin is a character in the handful of vignettes that make up this innovative young company’s freely conceived but tightly executed performance.
Its inspiration was the writings of Charles Bukowski, the American chronicler of down-and-out lives.
So why model a puppet on Spacey? For the fun of it, I suspect, but also for the associations the actor provides. Another puppet resembles Marlene Dietrich. Her name, however, is Mildred. Low Life has a radical twist that has nothing to do with celebrity: the puppets in its loosely linked sketches interact with their four, fully visible human manipulators.
Blind Summit has only begun to scratch the surface of this brilliant idea, but already it is yielding funny (both ha ha and peculiar) rewards.
These include Kevin, desperate for a drink, conspiring with a male puppeteer to retrieve the glass his flesh-and-blood spouse is keeping out of reach, or lonely Mildred ogling her human bartender’s bottom.
The puppets in this dark, postmodern comedy feel, think and even risk their lives. One is a plumber who, like a miniature superhero, runs in slow motion, shimmies down a giant pipe and plunges underwater in the line of duty. Another is a janitor whose broom is replaced by a book. He reacts wholeheartedly to what he reads, sobbing in pain or convulsing in hilarious relief.
Like Kevin and Mildred, these characters are beautifully sculpted and
handled. Only a fast, foul-mouthed parody of hard-boiled detective fiction,
although amusing, steers Low Life off-course. Too, the underlying theme
of addiction might have been more deeply explored. But if you are looking
for original and adult entertainment, put this high on your list.
THE METRO, London***,
25 Jan 06
Very loosely based on Charles Bukowski's alcohol-fuelled short stories, Low Life is a series of evocative vignettes involving a selection of puppets ranging from the almost life-sized to the table-top tiny. With impressive skill, the Blind Summit gang quickly takes you to the heart of each story, flipping the mood from gentle nostalgia to frantic farce with manipulative grace.
While each sketch was skilfully realised - with a skit based around a Mission Impossible-style plumber, fuelled on Limp Bizkit, the pick of the bunch - there was precious little to connect the episodes together. Which meant that each time the humans lurched back into the action, and Blind Summit make no effort to be anonymous puppeteers, the illusory spell was broken.
Just how powerful that spell could be was clear in a tear-jerking finale
built around the heartbreak of a Kevin Spacey-lookalike bar-room Johnny.
To the plangent strains of Jacques Brel's Ne Me Quitte Pas, the puppet
truly took on a life of its own as, alone in the dark, he drank himself
- and us - into magical oblivion.
DAILY TELEGRAPH, Monday Jan 30, 2006
It's worth seeing just for the alcoholic Kevin Spacey lookalike: in a
nod to the latter's performance in The Iceman Cometh, the figurine's impassive,
yet infinitely expressive, face turns this way and that, tantalised by
a beer tumbler. This diminutive act opens and closes a happy-making hour.
THE HERALD****, Monday August 22, 2005
FRINGE REPORT, 29 Jan 06
Each tale describes visually, with actions, words and music, the lives of the humdrum and good-for-nothing that frequent the same bar. The stories are simple - which allows the puppeteers ample scope to reveal their creativity in unexpected and surreal ways.
Usually, when nothing much happens, an audience can become bored and restless. But here there is freedom to indulge escapism and discover subtle nuances in the puppets' expressions - which unveils hidden extents of character and emotional state.
Within each framework, the puppets create a magical place where the implausible becomes real. A tiny Kevin Spacey lookalike mistakes his girlfriend for a dog (Giulia Innocenti). No attempt is made to conceal the puppeteers - questioning the relationship between puppets and people. It's a refreshing approach to puppetry, and creates a new level of interaction - between puppeteer and puppet.
Detail in figure and face differs in each puppet. As they decrease in detail, their characters have more to say - making up for their lack of physical expression. And the most life-like puppets (especially Mildred the failed West End star) - those which are meticulously crafted - need say nothing at all. Their expressive features do the talking and miraculously change and develop with increasing understanding of the story that is being told.
Man in My Shadow - though filled with South Park wit - drags on. An episode of slow-motion puppets being knocked from limb to limb - which appears in most of the sketches - though highly inventive, seems out of place here.
As a complete performance, Blind Summit brilliantly evokes the atmosphere
of Bukowski’s America. Low Life suggests Tom Waits's music, Edward
Hopper's painting Nighthawks, and an abundance of other chronicled lonely
waifs and placeless folk. There's a concern with intense realness of living,
and existential questions of life. Low Life takes these and turns them
upside down - contrasting reality with dream-like possibility.
THE STAGE, 23 January 2006
Maybe it’s the fact that their human, yet not quite human, status makes them fitting representatives of society’s outcasts, those who, like Blind Summit’s various models, take on the world from ankle or knee level.
Inspired by the short stories of American underclass chronicler Charles Bukowski, Low Life offers a cabaret of misfits - from Mildred the chain-smoking, washed-up starlet, to Bud, the miniature plumber, literally drowning in drink - who come to tell their tales to a soundtrack covering Tom Waits and Jacques Brel.
Unlike traditional puppeteers, Blind Summit’s quartet make no attempt to conceal themselves, allowing them to interact with their creations in intriguing ways. These puppets are inclined to turn unexpectedly to stare at their human counterparts, cling suddenly to them, even read aloud to them.
At times all four manipulators work on one character, allowing them to create unsettlingly real movements which are showcased particularly well in slow-motion, filmic sequences. These also provide some of the show’s funniest moments, such as Bud desperately running along a dripping tap to the Mission Impossible soundtrack.
Some of the jokes are dragged out longer than they should be, however, adding to an overall impression that Low Life is somewhat short of material despite its mere one hour running time.
It’s a shame because, with one or two more good ideas and less
reliance on easy laughs, this could be a very striking production.
TIMEOUT– All the world’s a stage -
August 17, 2005
THE METRO Edinburgh***, 18 August 2005
ANIMATIONS ONLINE - Edition
“Worth getting up early for” - Mary Caldwell (Finn’s aunt)
"Never thought I'd be laughing one moment and then so moved - watching fucking puppets!" - Jeanne Rathbone
Time Out - 20th Feb. 2002
All this might suggest that 'Mr China's Son' is a lugubrious trawl through a familiar tale of suffering under the Communists, but far from it. Directed by Mark Down, it is a remarkable evening, its thrillingly unconventional narrative endlessly darting down witty tangents. Mao, a puny, pudgy, preening puppet, arrives to gabble about 'poisonous weeds' and tea; later we're treated to a 'vague history of China', an irreverent skip through the centuries charting the inventions of silk, kites, fireworks and Potnoodles. Most startling are the set changes, which become cabaret showcases for Ernesto Tomasini's flamboyant singing.
Even more invention goes into manipulating Nick Barnes' beautiful wooden
puppets, a task shared by the cast. After a laborious start, their movements
become magical, not least when He Liyi swings from a tree to impress a
pretty girl, then whispers to his puppeteers to chat her up. This beguiling
scene id typical of the company's playfulness, and it's ability to breathe
life, not just into the puppets, but into every moment of the play.
What's On London - 20th Feb.
Liyi's story begins when, as a child, his policeman father, along with other landlords is murdered - but not before he has installed a love of learning and language in his young son, who becomes a willing and successful student of English. With the rise of communism, such a passion becomes dangerous, and fate and China's new rulers impose all kinds of cruelty on our hero, separating him from the woman he loves and denying him outlets for his beloved language. When China opens up again to western influences, the BBC World Service becomes a passion and, in his later years, he is accepted on their summer course in London.
The company's motto is "Blind Summit Theatre = beautiful puppets + amazing stories". This is indeed an extraordinary story of courage and fortitude, and the puppets are very beautiful - but the team have yet to pull the two elements together into a satisfying piece of theatre. The evening holds many delights - the potted, idiot's guide to Chinese history, for instance, played out by tiny blue puppets amongst a huge polystyrene landscape is fast, moving, informative and witty. And I loved it when a tiny, bad tempered Chairman Mao arrived in Hampstead in a parcel from China.
...There's enough too suggest that.. the company will be a very exciting
Reviewsgate.com - 17th February
After this show, bad acting should never be called wooden. Whether the model characters in Mr China's Son are wood or plastic they give extremely expressive performances.
They have help up to four black-garbed humans moving their limbs and neck. But the immense impact lies in the figures' emotional neutrality. A human actor would use their personality to seek out emotional responses from the audience. Here the operators are focused entirely on the technique of correctly moving their character-figure.
And that figure is dead material, moving because it evokes feeling in the audience through imitation. We are not responding to a person; the force of the situation arises through our direct response, and is stronger for it.
The story's based on a real life. Framed by an Englishman's letters to his girlfriend, it tells the story of 70 year old He Liyi; as an intelligent youth he was caught up in the Communist and Cultural Revolutions. Witnessing his father's execution, separated from women he loved, forced to confess his errors before the Red Guard, imprisoned before finally being free to do the job he loved, teaching English. In which capacity he wrote a simple letter for assistance to the BBC. And, now running a backpackers' café, he meets people such as the letter writer.
At times the piece falls into the devised and visual theatre trap of discursiveness. A rough guide to Chinese history is fun, and ends with a spectacular model building of the Yanz-tze dam, but it is a diversion from the main point. Yet the piece scores high for its intensely beautiful sections; He Liyi playfully cavorts with his (human actor) father until a shot rings out. The 'father' lies still, then, out of role, the actor moves from under his son, leaving the figure lost in mid-air, a poignant, sudden image of childhood loss.
Or there's the operators apparent struggle with the He Liyi figure as he's dragged off to jail; following his public self-denunciation. Moments like these show a silent figure can speak volumes.
Total Theatre Review - Volume 14, issue 2 - Summer
The narrative is told through other puppets (with Charlie Llewellyn Smith as chief puppeteer), some human characters and with occasional interruptions be a performer narrator. This colourful personage I took to be an incarnation of China's traditional Peking Opera past, judging by his dress and make up, but not by his demeanour, which was camp, strident and consciously 'comic'. He seemed to have wandered in from another show, and offered a surprising, if deliberate, contrast to the realistic behaviour of the puppets. The idea was good, but would have worked better in true Peking Opera style. Other comic episodes came from a midget Chairman Mao (when did China or indeed anywhere ever regard him as diminished or insignificant?) and an illustrated 'Vague History of China" which skated over the country's last 50 years or so, including the not obviously amusing Cultural Revolution.
The show was directed by Mark Down and cleverly designed by Nick Barnes
with some lovely moving moments of puppetry, but it did not hang together
as a whole, and needed the attention of a good dramaturg. There seemed
to be a compulsion to search for the easy laugh which sometimes jarred,
interrupting the flow of the tender narrative. However, with the undoubted
merits of the basic story, the design and the puppets, it would be a shame
not to sontinue to develop "Mr China's Son". Even in this form,
it was an impressive achievement.
WINNER Olivier Award for Best New Opera 2005
EVENING STANDARD – 7th November
What Minghella has done, working with his wife Carolyn Choa as associate director and choreographer, and with Michael Levine as designer, is to marry his genius for arresting cinematic images with the language of traditional Japanese theatre to create a truly spectacular production.
Elaborations of a vast, Oriental, black lacquered box, exquisite water effects with the silks, and Habitat lanterns transformed into glowing fireflies, are among the magical coups de theatre. A huge mirror a the rear of the stage multiplies the already riotous profusion of colours and shapes. Sometimes it reveals the concealed, as when we glimpse Butterfly and Suzuki sleeping after their vigil while Pinkerton, his new wife and the consul colonise the front of the stage.
At other times it opens up a breathtaking perspective: when Butterfly commits suicide at the other end, her blood pours out in the form of red silks streaming to all corners of the stage.
Most daringly of all, Butterfly’s young child is represented as a puppet in the Bunraku tradition, worked by three visible black-clothed operatives (Blind Summit Theatre). The pathos of the blindfolded puppet-boy prior to his mother’s suicide, taking faltering steps, is overwhelming. Elsewhere, a puppet of Butterfly herself touchingly beseeches a dancer, presumably representing Pinkerton, while white birds flutter enchantingly on sticks.
If only the musical values matched this sumptuous visual spectacle, the show would be unbeatable. The diminutive Mary Plazas has the figure for a 15-year-old geisha and sings Butterfly with attractive tone and finely controlled line. But neither she nor Gwyn Hughes Jones, for all his callous swagger as Pinkerton, really hits the mark when it matters. David Parry’s conducting (he also provided the translation, which is projected clearly) is strong on detail and bustle, but rarely raises the temperature to rapturous levels.
Christopher Purves is impressive as a sympathetic Sharpless, as is Jean Rigby as Suzuki. Other subsidiary roles, including Alan Oke as Goro, Mark Stone as Yamadori and Stephanie Marshall as Kate Pinkerton, are well taken.
With luck, the interaction of the music, drama and spectacle will increase in potency as the production beds down. Don’t miss any opportunity to see this visual feast, either now or when it returns in April.
A young Japanese bride - a prototype of Butterfly herself - slowly appears over the distant horizon and makes her way downstage trailing crimson sashes from her kimono. A rising mirror lends infinite depth and breathtaking aerial perspectives. Shadowy figures, veiled in black as if already in mourning, bind her waist in preparation for the wedding. The ritual complete, Puccini at last does for the ear what Minghella has already done for the eye.
One might have expected this most refined and seductive of film-makers to have graced the Coliseum stage with a series of beautiful images. What one hadn't expected was his total command of that stage, his thorough appreciation of what makes opera fill it.
This Butterfly is at once the simplest and most sumptuous thing we've ever seen in this theatre. It is the meeting of Japanese kabuki and Western opera but shot through with the expensive air and finely tuned manner of a Broadway show. When Butterfly's wedding party arrives, it too rises over a turquoise horizon and processes downstage as if seen through a shimmering heat haze.
The voluptuous colours of Han Feng's costumes, Peter Mumford's high-tech
lighting, and Michael Levine's floating mirror conspire to amaze. The
inevitable shower of cherry blossom and corridors of lanterns lead Butterfly
gently and seductively to the bedchamber. The imagery almost succeeds
in out Puccini-ing Puccini.
It is here that the boldest and most controversial aspect of Minghella's staging - his use of puppetry - comes into its own. Instead of a child, three wonderful puppeteers breathe tangible life into a little Japanese doll in a sailor suit. The physical detail, the restless, excitable, mother-clinging actions and reactions are such that a child actor could never give us and after a while you stop noticing the puppeteers and, like Butterfly, you see only genuine emotion and need in the impassive doll-face.
This is extraordinary. And it is a measure of Mary Plazas' touching performance in the title role that she too makes the puppet real for us. We begin to see and feel the world through her sensibilities. Plazas may not possess what many believe to be the ideal Butterfly voice. Though big and vibrant for her tiny frame, the reach of the big phrases and the vocal reserves necessary to fill and fully extend them is not always quite within her grasp. But she is a musician through and through and her wealth of experience brings much that is personal and touching, not least the way end cadences melt away, now hopeful, now hopeless.
Gwyn Hughes Jones (Pinkerton) got a couple of what I'm assuming were pantomime boos at the curtain call but though dry and a little shallow of tone, he delivered. Jean Rigby was a seasoned Suzuki, noble in her final indignation, and Christopher Perves was ringingly compassionate as the US Consul, Sharpless.
But the power and majesty of the evening belonged to Minghella and his associate director/choreographer Carolyn Choa. The final long-shot of Butterfly, the crimson sashes spilling from her body like her very life-blood, is one of many images that will be selling a lot of tickets for ENO in the months ahead.
WALL STREET JOURNAL (Europe)
Mr Minghella’s finest touch is to turn the child of Butterfly and Pinkerton into a Bunraku puppet, operated - as is traditional – by three visible, but totally self effacing puppeteers (the superb Blind Summit company), and far more expressive than any child actor. A Japanese-set opera is a gift to any costume designer, but Han Feng jubilantly seizes the opportunity to garb the cast in kimonos and court dress, and collaborates so gorgeously with Michael Levine (who has put a tilted mirrored surface the entire length of the rear of the stage so that we see almost everything doubled) that it is hard to decide whether the long streaming scarves that emanate from the characters’ sleeves and waists count as costumes or scenery.
TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT online
With the overture a great rectangle of dawn-red light opens at the back of a sweepingly spare ENO stage, and a representation of Madame Butterfly appears on the horizon of the metallic slope that rises towards the rear, trailing long prophetic crimson banners of what, at the end, become the streams of blood of her suicide. She dances with fans, then disappears magically behind the sliding screens of the house that Pinkerton has bought for his fifteen-year-old mock bride, just as Pinkerton and Sharpless appear to admire it.
The power of this opening statement becomes apparent as the drama unfolds. The great love duet that closes the first act has added poignancy in this production, because Anthony Minghella's superbly intelligent theatrical direction has made salient every possibility of its emotional significance and profound eroticism; whereas in so many other productions the first act's close is a considerably lesser denouement than that wrought by Pinkerton's distant repeated cry of 'Butterfly!' at the very end. Here the drama has two towering, soul-wrenching nodes, as Puccini surely intended. The combination of Mary Plazas' instinctive occupancy of the role and Minghella's direction makes her a memorable Cio-Cio-san. She becomes Butterfly; and Butterfly ‚ for it is she, not someone playing her ‚ quivers with an intensity of passion so believable and painful that the tragedy of the tale infuses the whole, even from the first moment of her happy appearance with the wedding party.
The way this Butterfly is staged makes one hear the music anew: that is a wonderful achievement. Every nuance of the way the score tells the story, explores its emotional content, warns, predicts, elevates and astonishes, is increased by this staging. The beautifully effective lighting, which itself catches and colours the mood and meaning of the action, and the stroke of genius in using a puppet for Butterfly's child (expertly and vividly worked by a team of no fewer than three puppeteers), add and add again to the sheer brilliance of the conception.
This is by some distance the finest and most imaginative production of
'Madame Butterfly' this reviewer has ever seen. Although the phrase is
worn, it really does apply here: it is unmissable.
THE DAILY MAIL
Minghella is already an Oscar winning film director and noted writer but he proves here, in his first opera production, that the lyric stage is very much his medium.
And he adds a new twist to this often cliched tale of betrayal and blighted love. With his wife Carolyn Choa as associate director and choreographer, he cleverly incorporates elements of Bunraku, the Japanese puppet theatre, into this sentimental slice of Italian verismo. The resilt is occasionally jarring but always vivdly theatrical - insiteful and challenging.
Black-clad, black masked figures slink like phantoms through Michael Levine's skeletal, mirror backed set, doubling and trebling as Butterfly's servants, sliding screen pushers and fan-swishing, scarf-swirling extras.
But the most extraordinary part of Minghella's daring concept is to use a Bunraku-style puppet as Butterfly's lovechild, Sorrow.
Blending stylised Japanese illusion with realistic operatic melodrama is a huge gamble, especially as the two amazing puppeteers (Mark Down and Nick Barnes) are always in sight, though draped and gauzed in black.
But the gamble often pays off. The puppet Sorrow takes on a spooky life of its own - quite chilling at times. As wooden performances go, this one is masterly.
There are some decent flesh-and-blood performances too. The Welsh tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones finally brings humanity as well as lechery to that imperiallist cad Lieutenant Pinkerton, while Jean Rigby makes a sympathetic Suzuki and Christopher Purves is convincingly bewildered as the US consul Sharpless.
At the centre of it all is Mary Plazas' diminutive Butterfly. Here's one soprano who could actually pass for a 15 year old geisha, her tiny frame belying a strong and secure voice.
She looks no more than a fragile child against Hughes Jones's bear like Pinkerton. But when the vulnerable child-bride becomes a deserted single parent, Miss Plazas finds both steely maturity and compassionate nobility.
Conductor David Parry gets all the emotional swell from Puccini's gushingly melodic score and provides a lucid new English translation too. But this will ultimately be remembered as the night Minghella pulled the strings.
Forget the opera - admire the stage pictures. This Butterfly is so visually entrancing it doesn't really matter what the story is about or whether it touches the heart. From first note to last, the eyes have it. In that respect, ENO got what it bargained for. It engaged an internationally renowned film director with no record in opera, matched him to a designer who could cover up the director's inexperience and in so doing managed what every opera company dreams about but rarely achieves: it got people talking. And they talked enough to get Anthony Minghella, the director in question, on the BBC 10 o'clock news the night before the opening. The result: a virtual sell-out for the 11-performance run (don't worry, there are another eight in April).
No one can possibly go away feeling short-changed - unless, of course, you enter the theatre hoping for serious engagement with the ideas and emotions of sexual victim-hood and cultural rape, the very stuff of Madam Butterfly. By obsessing themselves with the decorative aesthetics of Japan and using Puccini's score as a soundtrack, Minghella and his design team subvert and sidestep the realities. They do not ask us to respond viscerally, as every great production of the past has done, including ENO's previous staging. Minghella actually has nothing to say about Butterfly except that it lends itself to pretty stage pictures and cod-Japanese gestures.
So let's give the designer, Michael Levine, his due: there has never been a Butterfly that seduces its audience with images of such sophisticated beauty as this. It has little to do with the costumes (by Han Feng), which look like a parade of pre-20th century replicas. No, it's more the way Levine blends colour, lighting and visual symbol to conjure a Japan of the senses, delicate, fragrant and harmonious. That is as evident in the luminous horizon, from which most of the characters arrive in silhouette, as it is in the way flowers, birds, moon and blood are poetically represented.
And the beauty of it is that Levine and his lighting designer, Peter Mumford, never cover up the mechanics of theatre. They don't need to because, with screens, overhead mirror and side-spots, the stage is composed in the same way an artist deploys paint on canvas - by appealing to our aesthetic sensibility. This strain of imaginative artificiality is intensified by choreographic flights and Japanese puppetry - the latter to portray Butterfly's child. The animation is so well achieved by veiled but perfectly visible puppeteers that the puppets are easily the most authentic characters on stage.
How much more daring - and less gimmicky - if Minghella and Levine had taken the device to its conclusion and portrayed everyone as puppets, because Mary Plazas' Butterfly and the other singers belong in a different, more traditionally operatic show. Their decorative function at least enables David Parry's new translation to be heard. Plazas' diminutive physique distinguishes her from most interpreters of the title role, and on Saturday she seemed unfazed by its vocal demands. Gwyn Hughes Jones is the serviceable Pinkerton, Christopher Purves an excellent Sharpless. Parry hurries the score along and draws fine playing from the ENO orchestra. The production is to be shared with New York's Metropolitan Opera and the Lithuanian National Opera.
ANIMATIONS ONLINE - Edition 15
And what beautiful pictures! A wave of geishas appearing over the horizon, clad in poppy red, fuchsia, turquoise, their gorgeous forms and colours reflected in the enormous angled mirror over the stage (which reminds me of Lepage’s Far Side of the Moon – perhaps he should have beat Minghella to it and cannibalised his own ideas for his recent opera direction debut at the Royal Opera House?). A series of screens that slide open and shut, creating rooms and chambers, the secrets they conceal revealed by the mirror. Lanterns dancing on rods, like a family of moons in the night sky. Trails of billowing red silk representing a river of blood in the death scene. I could go on – in purely visual terms, it is one of the most sumptuously stunning stage presentations I have witnessed.
The performances are melodramatic rather than dramatic – how much of this is an intentional nod to Japanese theatre traditions and how much the inevitability of working within a form in which intensely emotional dialogue is all sung is hard for me to say, with my limited experience of live opera, and I would find it hard to comment with authority on the interpretation of Puccini’s music – but it sounded wonderful to my ears.
Which brings us to the reason for an opera review in Animations! In a decision that caused consternation to some opera fans and critics, Minghella decided to bring in a company of puppeteers to create some of the characters in the production – most crucially, Butterfly’s young son. The decision to use up-and-coming company Blind Summit (founded by Nick Barnes and Mark Down) was one that paid off. The puppets are beautifully crafted, the animation absolutely spot-on. The child-puppet, far from wooden, seems more real than the human characters; his every gesture nervously delicate, the jumpy puppy-dog energy of a young boy captured perfectly. Whenever he is on stage, our attention is drawn to him. Miraculously, his tiny gestures of hands and feet are not lost in the vast space that is the Coliseum stage – this surely due to the skills of the puppeteers, who are visible and clad in traditional masked black outfits. One lovely touch in the overall vision and direction of the piece is the way in which the puppeteers’ dress is echoed in the chorus of similarly clad performers who move screens or carry lanterns. As befits a story in which the tragic outcome is known by the audience before the show even starts, this gives a sense of the whole production as a story that is being engineered from the outside by the unseen powers of fate or the gods.
Madam Butterfly’s theatrically excessive death scene is counter-balanced beautifully by the sight of the small and frightened-looking, boy-puppet, blindfolded so he cannot see what the audience is witnessing. Once again, we are shown that a puppet can be the vessel for the main emotional thrust of the production, reaching hearts that might otherwise be too overcome by spectacle to respond to the core tragedy of the story.
And we cannot end without a mention of the very end. Do these people know how to take curtain calls! This becomes a whole extra scene in itself as waves of people flow to the front to take bow after bow. And there, right at the end, side-by-side with the Prima Donna is the wonderful boy-puppet, accompanied by the puppeteers of Blind Summit, who remove their masks to tumultuous applause. This is the moment that British puppetry has been waiting for, as rising stars of the artform are not only asked to participate in the creating of a major work, but also stand acknowledged in one of the high temples of live performance, the Coliseum.
In what has proved to be a controversial move, dividing seasoned opera goers and critics alike, Minghella has replaced several characters in this production with puppets – beautifully made by Nick Barnes and brilliantly animated by members of Blind Summit Theatre, which Barnes set up with Mark Down in 1997. It’s long overdue, but this high profile, high risk, high art arrival by a company that’s been chipping away at the coalface of conventional puppetry for years is a deserved leap into the big league. Of all the puppets, by far the most important is the one playing Butterfly’s son. This puppet-child is so alive, so real, so full of the wriggly energy and inquisitiveness of a three-year-old boy that he not only steals every scene he’s in, but also somehow manages to transform the otherwise average acting of Butterfly and Suzuki, her servant, into something that finally feels connected, emotional and true. It’s a testament to Blind Summit’s skill that the most totally fake thing in the production – a resin puppet standing in for a flesh-and-blood boy – not only captures the sprit of a real child, but also becomes the most believable actor in the cast.
There was always a risk for Blind Summit in this project. Moving from studio work into the cavern of the Coliseum, the puppets themselves could have become lost. And with Michael Levine’s set to contend with (beautiful: a huge angled mirror to reveal what would otherwise be hidden behind a series of tightly choreographed sliding screens; a snowfall of cherry blossom; paper lanterns floating in the black space like moons and stars), there are plenty of things to consume them. But the boy puppet in particular defeats these threats through the simple magic of an inanimate form being so miraculously brought to life. At the centre of the tragedy of Butterfly’s story, this puppet leads us to heartbreaking moments: the boy sniffing a flower, unaware of his fate; a twitching foot as he falls asleep; lost and frightened, blindfolded, as his mother kills herself. Heartbreaking moments, which soar across Puccini’s music, across the striking design, across the huge space between the stage and the audience, and become the beating, shattered, true heart of the piece. And if that’s controversial, so much the better. Blind Summit Theatre has worked long and hard for the chance to bring some controversy to the big stage. And in their own quiet way, they’ve taken the big stage and brought it down to puppet size.
THE NATION (Thailand)
Puppetry of a type that will be familiar to the audiences of the Joe Louis troupe in Bangkok was brought in to Anthony Minghella and Carolyn Choa's innovative production of Puccini's "Madam Butterfly" for English National Opera (in a joint production with the Metropolitan Opera of New York and Lithuanian Opera) to add a special piquancy to the opera's tragic tale.
Butterfly's son, the product of an affair with Pinkerton, an American visiting Japan, was represented by a puppet. The puppet has two handlers as in Joe Louis presentations.
The Blind Summit Theatre supplied puppet handlers able to make the puppet move in lifelike ways. Its detailed movements were captivating at times, but they served principally to underline the tragedy of a boy whose father has run off, and whose mother is to die.
If the movements of the puppet represented life, its lifeless face was of a child already half-dead. It reflected the inevitability of fate, the loss of identity of a child blinded by tragedy.
Towards the end, we were also presented with a puppet of Butterfly, representing one whose existence can only be defined by others. Even Butterfly's suicide was defined in terms of the need to meet the requirements of others -- so that the boy can relate to Pinkerton's wife -- who takes him away to America.
The puppetry was on a level of genius, and the London production of "Butterfly" was spectacula. The lighting by Peter Mumford creates effects both dazzling and intimate.
The bad news is that the musical side was neglected. Most of the singing
was bland. Butterfly (Mary Plazas) failed to engage the intense emotions
of the opera and Pinkerton (Gwyn Hughes Jones)
The orchestra, conducted by David Parry, might as well have been playing elevator music -- Puccini's fire was completely washed out.
Still, the use of Asian puppetry techniques elevated a European art form to new levels. So by all means attend if you are in London before December 9. Alternatively, look out for the Metroplitan Opera performances, which are likely to have a cast of a higher caliber.
Peter Mumford’s expressive, subtly evocative lighting is both prescient messenger of Butterfly’s fate and chronicler of the emotionally charged subtext. Michael Levine’s moving screens allow action to flow; his wide, rear up-curving floor space enables Anthony Minghella and Carolyn Choa to compose ravishing, emblematic stage pictures.
Deftly handled Bunraku puppets represent Butterfly’s household, her child Sorrow, and the teenage geisha herself in a thought sequence accompanying the waiting Intermezzo (Act II, Part 2).
In a recent Radio 4 interview, Anthony Minghella seemed to define his
directing role as non-interventionist. Certainly, the treatment of the
main protagonists is conventional, the odd telling detail excepted.
Mary Plazas’ Butterfly is extraordinary, the tiny figure disturbingly
highlighting the story’s more perverse aspects. She judges superbly
the delicate balance between resolve and vulnerability, never plays victim.
Vocally, she husbands her resources skilfully never to compromise the
power of the ‘spinto’ vocal lines.
Framed by Michael Levine's austere, sloping set, Minghella signals his
priority to create spectacular visuals right from the start. Before the
music begins, a geisha girl becomes the plaything of four masked dancers,
caught by a sheet of red cloth. Above the stage, a huge mirror allows
the audience to see behind the sets, illuminating usually invisible parts
of the drama, like Butterfly's distress before she appears to confront
DAILY TELEGRAPH - 8th Nov 05
Mary Plazas's performance reminds us that Butterfly is a human being, but the result sadly disappointed me. I can't say that Minghella has boobed, because what he presents at the London Coliseum is glamorously designed and meticulously rehearsed, and audiences who want their opera to be nothing more than a lavish floorshow with musical accompaniment will doubtless enjoy a splendid night out. (The production moves on to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where I imagine it will be a big crowd-puller.)
Yet I hated pretty much every second. Minghella's concept eviscerates the heart and soul of the work, chucking out its emotional reality and stuffing it instead with catwalk chic. It ignores the specific historical context that fascinated the composer and his librettist and their literary sources: the port of Nagasaki in the later 19th century, at a time when American trade was beginning to corrode the rigidly feudal and isolationist society of imperial Japan.
What Minghella sees isn't a critique of colonialism or psychological obsessiveness, but an elegant exercise in Japonaiserie. The staging is framed and coloured by the devices of Asian theatre. A choreographed dumb show prefaces each act (the second act being divided).
Michael Levine has designed a lacquered platform, curving up towards the rear, on to which minimalist screens and props are rolled by stagehands clad in black. There's no sense of the life of Nagasaki: this is pure fantasy theatre.
Butterfly's child Trouble is represented by a doll, handled (exquisitely, it must be said) by masked manipulators in the manner of Bunraku.
This sort of stylisation may work very well when applied to the deliberate pantomime of Turandot, but it doesn't illuminate the thoroughly Western compassion and complexity of Madam Butterfly. Minghella's version looks very pretty and Han Feng's costumes are ravishing, but it means nothing.
Somehow Mary Plazas transcends the vacuity of the spectacle and reminds
us that Butterfly is a human being. The role is much too long and big
for her petite frame and lyric soprano - the strain told at climaxes -
but she is a lovely singer, who imbued every note with feeling and an
instinctively musical shape.
The conductor, David Parry, hammered out the score in vulgar fashion, letting rip at the climaxes, but showing scant consideration either for Butterfly's fragility or Puccini's refinements. This is a performance for connoisseurs of Vogue, not lovers of opera.
Oscar-winning Anthony Minghella’s debut as an opera director deserves cheers on many levels — but not the one that really counts. When Butterfly plunges the sword into herself, I doubt whether there is a wet eye in the house. Aiming to stylise Puccini’s imperialist tragedy along the ritualised lines of Bunraku or Kabuki drama, Minghella ends up sterilising it. Italian emotions and Japanese puppets don’t really mix.
That’s one problem. The other is that the musical standards aren’t top class. There’s one touching and beautifully observed performance, from the tiny-framed but great-hearted Mary Plazas in the title role, and decent support acts from Christopher Purves’s Sharpless, Jean Rigby’s harrowed Suzuki and Mark Stone’s nobly-sung Yamadori. But the score never takes wing under David Parry’s workmanlike baton. Grafting Minghella’s sophisticated visuals on to this pedestrian musical approach is like trying to run a Rolls-Royce chassis on a Trabant engine.
Which is a pity, because Minghella’s imaginative sweep often takes the breath away. It is achieved primarily through one dazzlingly cinematic stroke of inspiration. Michael Levine’s set, a sparse black box with sliding Japanese screens, is roofed by a mirror. That not only gives us a bird’s eye view of the stage, but also reveals what’s going on behind the scenes. Psychologically, the effect is to heighten the chasm between illusion and reality — the chasm into which Butterfly fatally falls.
In this set, sumptuously lit by Peter Mumford, the costumes of the Chinese fashion designer Han Feng explode in a riot of colour. So do whole ballets of fans and lanterns, blossom petals, origami birds, and fluttering leaves. Choreographed by Carolyn Choa, Minghella’s wife, dance also plays an unusually big part in the action.
Indeed, the magnificent Act I duet between Butterfly and Pinkerton (Gwyn Hughes Jones) is staged almost as a pas de deux, replete with two climactic leaps by the heroine into her lover’s arms.
All this is gripping. So are the mime shows foreshadowing each act. Yet in the end the stylisation gets in the way, and nowhere more so than in Minghella’s most controversial innovation: having Butterfly’s three-year-old love child portrayed by a puppet. A sly comment on the wooden acting sometimes encountered in opera houses? Minghella surely wouldn’t be that cruel. But it’s one Oriental touch too many, distracting us from a Butterfly who deserves total attention.
SATURDAY REVIEW- Radio 4
Well, a marionette may act better than a two-year-old, but it's something of a problem when he's manipulated, however expertly, by three masked men, who must follow the little fellow around wherever he goes. This is the Bright Idea that the Oscar-winning film director brings to his first opera staging: a lavish, West End-style version of the Puccini heartbreaker, rather more Miss Saigon than Madam Butterfly. It may be authentically Bunraku, and the audience seemed to love it; but I found the puppet arch, and a distraction from more important matters such as Butterfly's deluded preparations for Pinkerton's return. The same goes for the huge, angled mirror above the stage - as in fellow film director Mario Martone's Ballo in Maschera for Covent Garden, which returns this week; it makes for some dramatic effects - notably at Butterfly's overly grand entrance - but seeing everything that's going on behind the scenes can be a mixed blessing.
Michael Levine's sets and Han Feng's costumes bring a riot of colour to the sliding panels so often used in stage depictions of Japanese home life, marred only by the use of those Habitat lamp-shades of Sixties ubiquity. Amid showers of the usual cherry blossom, Minghella's heavily stylised reading was at times infected by the sentimentality that can mar his films; when Pinkerton picked up Butterfly to carry her to bed, I was reminded of that cringe-making moment in The English Patient when Ralph Fiennes carries Kristin Scott Thomas into a cave, with the same thing in mind.
Even more has gone wrong (or you've got an ignorant first-night audience) when there is giggling as Christopher Purves's noble Sharpless curses Pinkerton as the 'bastard' he is. The sheer bulk of Gwyn Hughes Jones somehow underscores the American's selfish cowardice.
For all her diminutive stature, especially in his shadow, Mary Plazas makes a beguiling Butterfly, singing beautifully, if not quite powerfully enough, with Jean Rigby offering strong support as Suzuki. Plazas might have fared better with more passion from David Parry in the pit.
Despite the temptations of Parry's translation, as in: 'The world is my oyster, like any roving Yankee', Minghella resists the temptation to turn the piece into a modish anti-American tract. Thanks partly to the choreography of his associate director (and wife), Carolyn Choa, it comes across as scrupulously, cinematically Japanese. But the extra stage business, from ritual dances to dumb-shows, constantly diverts attention from the unfolding tragedy, leaving the eye dry as Butterfly makes a ritual end of herself.
The British director premiered a visually striking production of Puccini's
Madam Butterfly for the English National Opera in London on Sunday. It
drew raves as well as disapproving reviews from the British press.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Minghella's Butterfly was criticized
for prizing style over substance.
The production drew controversy early on for its use of a puppet, manipulated by veiled "invisible" puppeteers, to portray Butterfly's young son. The set design features a lacquered floor, origami birds and other symbols borrowed from Japanese theatre.
The production, which like all ENO productions was sung in English, was eagerly awaited by the London opera crowd and the 11-performance run was virtually sold out.
Starring Mary Plazas in the title role, Madam Butterfly continues at the ENO until Dec. 13 before moving to New York's Metropolitan Opera and the Lithuanian National Opera in 2006.
Minghella's duet manages this tightrope walk perfectly: the stage, filled with a falling curtain of flower petals borrowed from kabuki tradition and paper lanterns representing both the stars and fireflies mentioned in the text, places the action in the realm of fantasy -- both Butterfly's and Pinkerton's -- while the fear and pain on Plazas's face and physical dominance of Hughes-Jones's gestures leave us in no doubt as to the power dynamics of the situation. As the seduction is at last consummated, the singers are concealed behind a billowing blue cloth, recalling Butterfly's wedding sash, the sea from which Pinkerton arrived and into which he will disappear, and the blood that will eventually pour out of her body at her suicide.
We've dwelt on this one moment in the hope of communicating how rich in detail, how meticulously thought-though, this production is throughout. Most reactions, we suspect, will focus on more superficial aspects of the show: its reference to traditional Japanese dance and theater, and especially its use of puppets in the style of classical Japanese bunraku. This is perhaps less innovative and interesting as a concept than it may at first seem. Any number of productions of this opera have attempted to make similar conceptual allusions. What needs to be stressed is how beautiful, intelligent, and viscerally affecting Minghella has made these ideas in execution.
We almost don't want to describe the puppets too much, since we went into the evening not expecting them, and so their sheer dramatic power was that much more astounding. But believe us: the way the puppets are manipulated, and the was the human performers relate to them onstage create a totally unique theatrical effect. When, during the "dream ballet" interpolated into the opening of Act 3, the puppet representing Butterfly clutches with desperation at the departing Pinkerton, we heard an audible gasp go up around us.
There is so much to praise about this staging: the ravishingly beautiful costumes by the haute-couture designer Han Feng, who had never designed theatrical costumes before, and managed to create outfits that reference nineteenth-century Japan just enough, while also feeling glamorously contemporary; the subtle lighting by Peter Mumford which employed those cool robotic-arm spotlights to maximum effect; the spare set by Michael Levine that could utterly change the character of the performance space in an instant. But you can see all these things for yourself: there are only eleven performance left... get your tickets now
Reuters - " Japanese-style Butterfly tests English patience"