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"English Patient" Director Turns to Opera

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LONDON (Reuters) - Film director Anthony Minghella, who won an Oscar for "The English Patient," has turned his attention to opera, staging Puccini's "Madam Butterfly" in a London production that has divided the critics.

In his first opera, Minghella has gone for the visually striking in a production that borrows heavily from Japanese theater, featuring fan ballets, origami birds, a mirrored roof revealing backstage areas and a black, sloping lacquered floor.

Most controversially, Butterfly's young son is played by a puppet, manipulated by three "invisible" men cloaked in black on stage.

At a weekend premiere at the English National Opera, one of the most eagerly awaited productions of the opera calendar was warmly received, particularly the performance by diminutive British singer Mary Plazas in the title role.

But critics were divided over Minghella's concept, with some criticizing it for putting style too far ahead of substance.

"Minghella's concept eviscerates the heart and soul of the work," wrote Rupert Christiansen of the Daily Telegraph on Monday. "This is a performance for connoisseurs of Vogue, not lovers of opera," he concluded.

Richard Morrison of the Times was not convinced by the puppetry, calling it "one Oriental touch too many ... Italian emotions and Japanese puppets don't really mix."

He and others agreed the production, sung in English as are all operas at the ENO, was visually sumptuous, and Plazas won universal praise for her portrayal of the teenaged Japanese geisha loved and betrayed by U.S. Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton.

In the most positive review, the Independent's Edward Seckerson gave the production five stars out of five.

"This Butterfly is at once the simplest and most sumptuous thing we've ever seen in this theater," he wrote.

English-born Minghella, best known for directing the 1996 hit "The English Patient," starring Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes, collaborated with his wife, choreographer Carolyn Choa, on Madam Butterfly.

"I have had this music in my head for years," Minghella said in a recent newspaper interview, adding that he listened to the opera on every plane journey he made in the last year.

The ENO production runs until December 13, and will then move to the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

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