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Hit "Butterfly" gets loving touch in vital ENO revival

By Karin Strohecker

LONDON (Reuters) - This production of Giacomo Puccini's tear-jerker "Madam Butterfly" has seen it all: Standing ovations, critical acclaim on both sides of the Atlantic, an Olivier award - and that was before the curtain went up.

The late film director Anthony Minghella's staging of one of Puccini's most popular operas, with its lush tunes and sad tale of loyal love spurned, is back at the English National Opera this month, its fifth revival and sixth run at the ENO.

London's second opera company, which is rebounding from a huge deficit in the 2011-2012 season, is counting on popular productions like this to fill seats and carry the can for more esoteric offerings.

"It is important that the core repertoire pieces like the 'Madam Butterfly', like a recent 'Carmen' we did with Calixto Bieito, a great 'Tosca' - that we can bring these pieces out," ENO Artistic Director John Berry told Reuters.

In Minghella's "Butterfly" it has exactly that. The tale of a tragic liaison between a Japanese woman and the American naval officer Pinkerton that produces a child and her suicide has been a staple of opera houses around the globe since its premiere in 1904.

Yet it was the Oscar-winning Minghella's first foray into opera which delivered one of the most acclaimed productions in recent history, staged not only in London but also at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and seen by thousands more around the globe thanks to live broadcasts and a DVD release.

The stunning opening of Minghella's production - a silent dance, sumptuous movements and vivid colors - boldly claims center space for visuals. In the interval, discussions revolve around the beautiful lighting and riots of color on stage.

Minghella, who won an Oscar for "The English Patient", died unexpectedly in March 2008, while his production has lived on. But how do you handle such a priceless gem?

For Sarah Tipple, who filled the role of revival director for the first time, it was a daunting and exciting task.

"'Madam Butterfly' is such a famous piece and one which has been interpreted in many different ways and so it's crucial for everyone to focus in on how Anthony wanted to tell the story," she said in an interview.

Some in the team, like Mary Plazas who sings Butterfly in select performances, had worked with Minghella. Others are new to the project, including Italian conductor Gianluca Marcian, taking to the pit for the first time in a London opera house.

It is an ideal combination in many ways, said Tipple, with veterans proving an invaluable resource to understanding how the director wanted the story to be told, and newcomers bringing fresh insights.

And what was her biggest challenge?

"Not putting pressure on myself to fill Anthony's shoes - I obviously can't ever be him - but I can do my best with his production," she said.

LEAKY SHIPS

For the ENO, this revival is about much more than keeping Minghella's artistic legacy alive. In financially difficult times, a popular production of an audience favorite provides an economic lifeline as well as breathing space for more experimental pieces, Berry said.

The ENO, which almost exclusively stages operas in the English language, competes in the British capital with the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, just half a mile away.

A funding shortfall, driven chiefly by a grant reduction from Britain's Arts Council, left the ENO with a 2.2-million-pound ($3.57 million) deficit in its 2011-2012 year. Seats were only being filled 71 percent of the time and the opera house had to dip into its reserves to keep going.

The picture has improved since then. Following cost savings and increased ticket sales, the ENO expects to have reduced its deficit to a shortfall of 780,000 pounds in the 2012-2013 season and aims for a balanced budget in the current financial year.

Another reminder of the financial pressures opera houses face has come from New York, where the New York City Opera filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection this month, just short of the 70th anniversary of New York's second opera company.

"Three-quarters of all opera houses are using reserves to support their work," Berry said. "Opera is notoriously expensive, and the leaky ships of the opera model worldwide are a challenge."

(Editing by Michael Roddy and Pravin Char)

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