Opera Australia delivers an authentic, high quality opera experience with their 2018-2019 regional tour of Puccini’s exquisite tragedy Madame Butterfly.
A remounting of the 2008 touring production, the staging is helmed by inimitable director John Bell. The period is updated to post World War II, creating the clear and convincing scenario that US Navy Lieutenant Pinkerton is indulging himself with a little reward for his service before returning home.
The setting remains Nagasaki, and if the sliding rice paper walls are from a bygone time, well, that is all part of the experience that the pimpmarriage broker Goro is selling. The handsome design, by Jennie Tate, features a floating wooden floor over glossy slate tiles and steps. Vases of blossoms and a billowy rear white curtain complete the picture of Japanese serenity.
Lighting designer Matt Scott makes excellent use of the white backdrop as a canvas for lush, atmospheric colour and dappled blossom effects. Lighting is key in one of Bell’s most attractive stage pictures, with Cio-Cio-San, Suzuki and Joy bathed in a central pool of light as the chorus carry gently glowing lanterns during the exquisite “Humming Chorus.”
Tate’s costumes neatly balance realism with spectacle. Cio-Cio-San’s story is told in costumes; she enters under heavy lidded veil before revealing fitted white kimono with pale pink floral pattern, wide rose pink sash with ornate rear bow all overlaid with filmy white chiffon robe. In act two, while maid Suzuki remains in traditional Japanese dress, Butterfly has chrysalised to a coral coloured dress, completing the western look by letting her hair hang straight.
Costumes for The Bonze (uncle of Cio-Cio-San) and suitor Prince Yamadori may be overly elaborate for the period, but they add a striking visual element. Kate Pinkerton arrives in chic midnight blue coat and feathered turban hat. Goro’s witty look demonstrates the West’s intrusion on the East by combining billowing silk pants with what is clearly the character’s concept of an English gentleman on the top half, being black tie and tails, purple striped vest, white gloves and bowler hat.
The Drum Theatre is a wonderful space for opera. The pit is out of view and stage action feels intimately close. Sound travels easily and with a warm tone.
Conductor Warwick Stengards leads a chamber-sized orchestra of 11 musicians, achieving a very full rendition Puccini’s beautifully expressive score despite reduced orchestrations. Use of keyboard effectively creates sounds such as harp and ornamental bells and chimes.
As hinted by the spelling of the title, Madame Butterfly is performed in English, with diction at a premium. What is lost by not singing in the original Italian is certainly gained in accessibility and clarity. The libretto contains abundant plot points, and the English translation, by Peter Hutchison, will be sure to enhance the enjoyment of newcomers to the work.
With this regional tour, Opera Australia continues the ingenious idea of welcoming specially formed children’s choirs into the performances as the opera chorus. At this performance, children from Dandenong performed with professional grace, singing sweetly and adding significantly to the overall stage picture. Kershawn Theodore had the added responsibility of playing Cio-Cio-San’s young child, Joy, a role that he performed with dignity and confidence.
The three lead roles in Madame Butterfly are doubled for the tour, with singers supporting their colleagues in the chorus and smaller roles on their alternate nights.
On opening night, Sharon Zhai made an auspicious Opera Australia debut, giving a moving performance as dear Cio-Cio-San. Looking every bit the picture perfect Butterfly, Zhai is particularly strong in acts two and three, clearly conveying the vulnerability simmering beneath the young woman’s determined façade. While not possessing an overly powerful voice, Zhai sings with tireless beauty, her vocals coloured with a tender, fragile tone as befits the character.
Matthew Reardon opened the season as Pinkerton, bringing a smug, self-satisfied air to the decidedly unlikeable lieutenant. Also making his Opera Australia debut, young tenor Reardon sings with a steely strength and presents a robust stage presence. As they sing Puccini’s rapturous love duets, chemistry between Pinkerton and his young “bride” is lacking at this stage, but is sure to develop as the tour progresses.
Russian mezzo-soprano Anna Yun gives a highly accomplished performance as Suzuki, displaying a natural presence with very well developed stagecraft. Yun sings the role with sweetness, coloured by the character’s stern concern for her mistress’ well being. Yun and Zhai sound gorgeous together as Suzuki and Butterfly sing the “Flower Duet.”
The three lead roles are also played by Danita Weatherstone (Cio-Cio-San), Martin Buckingham (Pinkerton) and Kristen Leich (Suzuki).
Prolific baritone Andrew Moran brings a sense of noble authority to US consul Sharpless. Singing the role with reliable quality, Moran tracks the character’s arc from unfeeling enabler to sympathetic supporter.
Emerging tenor Michael Petruccelli provides welcome comic relief, playing the groveling, fastidious Goro as a kind of human C-3PO. As well as providing lovely vocals, Petruccelli amuses as Goro shares his folding set of female postcards and eavesdrops in a quirky manner.
Highly experienced bass Steven Gallop is seen all too briefly in the successfully imposing role of the Bonze. Shoumendu Schornikow makes a memorable cameo appearance as vainglorious Prince Yamadori.
Newcomers to opera need have no fear of the art form when it is represented so creatively and engagingly as it is here. Opera Australia’s regional tour of Madame Butterfly is an authentic cultural experience to be cherished.
Madame Butterfly plays again at Drum Theatre, Dandenong 14 July 2018. The 2018 National Tour of Madame Butterfly plays throughout Victoria, New South Wales and Tasmania.
Photos: Jeff Busby