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Madama Butterfly

Diana Carroll

A fond farewell to this stylish Opera Australia production after more than 150 performances.
Madama Butterfly

Image: Sian Pendry as Suzuki and Karah Son as Cio-Cio-San in Opera Australia's production of Madama Butterfly at the Capitol Theatre. Photo by Prudence Upton.

Giacomo Puccini always said that this Tragedia Giapponese was his personal favourite of all his operas and that he loved Butterfly more than all his other heroines.  The tragic story of Madama Butterfly is surely one of the best known opera tales.  Set in Nagasaki, the young Geisha Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly) is married to the American naval officer Lieutenant Pinkerton. They enjoy a brief interlude of conjugal bliss and then Pinkerton sails away into the sunset. Butterfly is left sad and lonely. Her only ambition in life is to be a ‘real American wife’ and she clings desperately to the belief that her husband will return one day.  And return he does, only now he is accompanied by Mrs Pinkerton – a real American wife in every sense.  As the tragedy unfolds we meet Sorrow, the now illegitimate son of their union. And opera being opera, Butterfly takes her own life leaving Pinkerton to face the awful consequences of his duplicity and cowardice.

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This Opera Australia production premiered in 1997 after three years in development by director Moffat Oxenbould and designers Peter England and Russell Cohen.  It has been recreated numerous times, but this two-week season at Sydney’s splendid Capitol Theatre is to be its last outing. The revival production is directed by Hugh Halliday with Andrew Frith as assistant director and Robert Bryan on lighting design.

There is no doubt that the production is visually superb, with beautiful lines, clever lighting, sumptuous fabrics and colours, and the delicious touch of a set delicately positioned in the water that creates immediate metaphors of physical and emotional isolation and vulnerability.  There is also a touch of whimsy in the costuming, highlighting the sad reality that things are not as they seem.  This life may be real enough for Butterfly and her young son, but it’s more of a charade for Pinkerton.  There are some unpalatable themes here – the roving ‘Yankee’, the callous colonialism, and the sham marriage of a 15-year-old who has already been forced into work as a geisha to avoid begging on the streets.

The South Korean soprano Karah Son is an experienced Butterfly although this is her first time on the Australian stage.  She has a clear, strong voice and has a commanding presence.  Whilst she doesn’t have the fragility usually seen in Butterfly, she does have a convincing emotionality.  Her rendering of Butterfly’s most-loved aria Un bel dì vedremo (One Beautiful Day) was indeed beautiful.  She was also warm and evocative in the lovely Flower Duet shared with Sian Pendry as her faithful maid Suzuki. Pendry played this role in the 2015 production and her confidence shows.  Her quiet presence and perfect tone was delightful throughout. 

Mexican-born tenor Diego Torre sang the role of Pinkerton with a rich warmth and a striding masculinity.  Barry Ryan was equally engaging as Sharpless, the United States Consul who had a major role in the marriage and was all too aware of how it might end.   Graeme Macfarlane also reprises the role of Goro, the fast-talking marriage broker, that he has played in previous runs.  And the young child actor who is seen toward the end of Act II as Sorrow deserves a special mention for a touching performance, even though his name does not appear in the program.

The Opera Australia Orchestra did a fine job down in the pit under the baton of conductor Brian Castles-Onion and led by deputy concertmaster Katherine Lukey.  Madama Butterfly is sung in Italian with English surtitles.  There did seem to be a few problems with vocal projection on opening night, but it may just be that the voices drifted upwards into the gods of the Capitol Theatre.  The balance between voices, orchestra, and chorus seemed much more cohesive after interval.

This really is a superb piece of artistic operatic staging.  It may seem understated today, compared with more daring or experimental operatic forms, but there is something to be said for its clarity of purpose and strength of artistic vision.  See it before it retires forever on November 4.

Rating: 4 1/2 stars out of 5
Opera Australia
Capitol Theatre, Sydney until November 4th.
CONDUCTOR: Brian Castles-Onion
ORIGINAL DIRECTION BY: Moffatt Oxenbould
REVIVAL DIRECTOR: Hugh Halliday
SET & COSTUME DESIGNERS: Peter England & Russell Cohen
LIGHTING DESIGNER: Robert Bryan
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR:  Andrew Frith
CIO-CIO-SAN: Karah Son/ Hyeseoung Kwon 
PINKERTON: Diego Torre/ Andeka Gorrotxategi 
SUZUKI: Sian Pendry/ Agnes Sarkis 
SHARPLESS: Barry Ryan
GORO: Graeme Macfarlane
THE BONZE: Gennadi Dubinsky
YAMADORI: Sitiveni Talei
KATE PINKERTON: Jane Ede
COMMISSIONER: Ryan Sharp
REGISTRAR: Gregory Brown

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Dr Diana Carroll is a writer, speaker, and reviewer based in Sydney. Her work has been published in newspapers and magazines including the SMH, the Oz, Woman's Day, and B&T. Writing about the arts is one of her great passions.

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