Fire, Water, Blood and Music: the triumph of Madama Butterfly
Moffat Oxenbould’s highly acclaimed Opera Australia production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly has been around since the late 1990s, periodically performed in Melbourne to adoring crowds. Some great musicians have appeared in the iconic roles of Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton in the long-running production; a few years ago, I saw an incarnation starring Australian artists Antoinette Halloran and Rosario La Spina. It was my first real opera that I ever saw. This time around, despite having seen the exact production before, nothing about this felt stale. It was as entirely fresh to us all as it must have felt in 1997; and, indeed, in 1904 when the opera first premiered.
The production has been put forward as a great ‘entrance-level’ opera for those who might not usually attend opera, which was something constantly in the back of my mind as I witnessed the art on stage on opening night. The informative character, plot, and contextual breakdowns in the program added to this accessibility.
The striking design is no doubt the first thing one notices when entering the Arts Centre’s State Theatre. The stage is filled in with water, and levelled wooden boards and platforms make up the surface of the stage. Instead of a curtain, strips of light, papery fabric draped down in columns, creating a soft, textured mirage through which we could enter the sublime world of Puccini and his Butterfly.
Throughout the experience all the elements of Earth come together, entering into the not-so-safe haven inside Butterfly’s fragile paper room, disrupting, or simply embellishing, the emotional landscape within. Hell’s fire burns orange hot; Mother Nature’s soft, feminine petals gently scatter upon the boards; the silks adorning the Butterfly move gently with the air; heaven’s romantic moon glows in the twinkling night sky. The visual effect of Butterfly is as psychoanalytical as it is beautiful.
The acting of all players in Butterfly was truly great; accurate enough to be appropriate, but fiery enough to be truly believable. The inner depths of the core characters were perfectly conveyed throughout the emotionally tumultuous journey of Butterfly. The singing, too, was simply sublime. James Egglestone as Pinkerton was stunning in the coveted role. His high notes soared with beautiful clarity, and the physical nature of his acting across the stage was exciting to watch. He brought a unique sex appeal to Pinkerton that made the romance between he and the title character more stirring and believable. All supporting roles were performed with absolute dedication, clarity, and vocal perfection; notably Michael Honeyman shined as Sharpless, who stunned with his delicious baritone notes, and Sian Pendry as Suzuki, who provided a nuanced, grounded supporting performance opposite the fluttering Butterfly.
But of course, the essential central performance of Hiromi Omura as Cio-Cio San was the most powerful, moving, and effecting element of the piece. Her embodiment of the fragile, captured Butterfly was so absolute, her pain so believable, that she could only be looked upon as the innocent teenaged girl swept away in a false romantic fantasy. Omura’s soaring soprano was simply sublime; stunning, perfect, delicate. The beauty of her voice alone could evoke tears. Indeed, she brought the auditorium to sobs during the definitive aria “Un Bel Di”, and again in her final tragic, revelatory moments.
The orchestral music by Orchestra Victoria was perfectly balanced with the vocal performances, though they truly shone during the extended musical sequence as day tuned to night on the stage. The moments where not much was happening on stage gave the audience a chance to breathe and to take it all in, but some may have been a tad restless waiting for the action to kick off again.
The act 1 finale duet between Butterfly and Pinkerton was so tender and so full of chemistry that it was an entirely believable, even modern, cat-and-mouse courtship between the two lovers. That gorgeously staged and acted scene, and the final dramatic scene, were sure highlights of the production. The genuine shock from the audience at several surprising plot twists during the second act was a pleasure to witness; even a work of art so well known as Puccini’s Madama Butterfly can attract new audiences, and still has the power to move new people unfamiliar with the text. And move it did
The audience was left in emotional turmoil – Puccini does tend to have that effect – by this intense, involved, stunningly delivered piece of theatre. This production is brilliant theatre for anyone – opera lovers and newcomers alike. The only thing missing from this piece for possible opera newcomers is the absence of big, soaring chorus numbers. If audiences crave that wall of immense sound, as I know I do, Verdi is great for that. Opera Australia are staging Verdi’s Don Carlos soon, so keep an eye out for that production.
Butterfly is a love story, a tragedy, a character study, a universal story, defined by a beautiful, unbeatable score. The cast were overwhelmed by the standing ovation they received on opening night, but it was well-deserved. I cannot fault the entire experience.
Photo credit: Jeff Busby