Photo credit: Guy Davies
One of the first things I noticed in the program booklet for Opera Australia’s June production of ‘Madama Butterfly’, the first opera of their Winter 2022 season at Sydney Opera House, was a QR code you could scan to give Opera Australia feedback on “Historical attitudes towards race, faith and gender…found in many traditional opera stories…”
During the summer season, Opera Australia was accused of insensitivity in its portrayal of the Beijing courtiers of ‘Turandot’, Ping, Pang and Pong. “Madama Butterfly,” set in Japan, is equally risky territory. How do you present “Madama Butterfly” nowadays when you have to be wary of cultural and racial stereotypes?
In 2017, Seattle Opera organized a series of seminars and explanatory writings around a production. In 2019, Pacific Opera Project in Los Angeles presented the work in the languages the characters are said to have spoken, with a Japanese translation by conductor Eiki Isomura. It was striking when Butterfly (who is also known as Cio-Cio San) attempted sentences in English.
So it was interesting to anticipate how Butterfly and her fellow Japanese would be portrayed in OA’s revival of Graeme Murphy’s 2019 production (Shane Placentino was the revival’s director). How to avoid returning to old stereotypes? One hesitates to portray Butterfly as a fragile victim though she asks her suitor, the opportunistic U.S. Navy Lieutenant Pinkerton, at the start of their love duet Act one, if he is true, as she reads it. , that in his country beautiful butterflies are pinned to display signs. So you might understand by this that she herself is stuck in this predicament although momentarily blind to Pinkerton’s blithe disregard for the sincerity of her feelings by taking advantage of the country’s then lax contracts (Puccini put the story in the early 1900s) to marry the 15-year-old.
In Murphy’s production which premiered on June 29, South Korean soprano Sae Kyung Rim’s mastery of Puccini’s score and her vocal dominance gave Butterfly a certain degree of knowledge. It would be a particularly noxious invader that could trap her; but there was a huge red canvas as a design element and even as a bridal headdress in the first act. Who could escape?
Does this mean that this staging, in its tracing of a balance of power between suitor and object of desire, and its variety of costumes constantly taking us out of the frame (the costumes were by Jennifer Irwin), is not not moving, the main request many people would make of a Puccini production? Not at all, but it turned out to mean that we could be moved by different moments; even by the agency Butterfly, that is to say Rim. It’s wonderful when a production can make you aware of corners of a work that weren’t previously thought to be so revealing.
Admittedly, there were times in this production where I wondered if maybe it hadn’t been too updated, to the point of not being able to empathize. “Sensationalized” might be too strong a word, but it seemed a little cute when someone asked for whiskey and a magical minion on LED screens (Kevin Chen) served it or when designer Irwin decorated the together in Harajuku street style. Still, the large differentiation in Irwin’s costumes mentioned above separated the functions of the characters well. Bass David Parkin as the Bonze, representative of traditionalism in the story, wore a kind of origami bird hat. Kate Pinkerton, the American wife of Pinkerton (played by soprano Jane Ede), who comes at the end as a shocking touch of new reality for Butterfly, presented middle-class American “normality” in her pink coat ” Jackie Kennedy” and his pillbox hat.
Rear-projected footage of people in bondage revealed what production thought of Pinkerton’s exploitative attitude towards his 15-year-old wife. Strong social commentary, but luckily for me the music continued to provide the expected emotion throughout the first half, even as the production provided an element of distancing (It’s an ongoing question whether the music of Puccini anesthetizes a member of the public to the deeper implications of its plots or should, and to what extent productions should compensate).
Sae Kyung Rim gave us a butterfly that seemed more in control of its aspirations than is often the case. She dominated the scene from her first arrival in the wedding procession. Her big number in act two “Un bel dì” when she visualizes the return of Pinkerton, felt with authority the forms of her big number giving us the full dimension of her tragedy. Isolating it behind the scenes and providing a graphic of falling kanji letters amplified that feeling.
The danger of a successful “Un bel dì”, however, is that it becomes a standalone climax and climax that interrupts the drama. But in this production, I noticed more than ever that Butterfly has another, later, equally telling monologue (“Vedrai, piccolo amor”) and in that, Sae Kyung Rim’s partnership with the Opera Australia Orchestra under the direction of Carlo Montanaro, building convincingly on the desperate optimism of its previous issue. The fact that Rim utters the name of Pinkerton’s ship, the “Abramo Lincoln”, deeply expresses an amalgamation between his true love and a mistaken faith in the reliability of the American cad, Pinkerton, and Rim stands above the swell. an orchestral climax (on a dominant 13eperhaps the most intensely emotional chord in traditional harmony) conveyed an anguish about his situation that, to me, borders on unbearable.
As for the other characters, baritone Michael Honeyman has invested a great deal of warmth and savvy in the sympathetic character of Sharpless, the American consul who, from the first moments of the opera, senses the tragedy that Pinkerton’s marriage to Butterflies. The Australian-Italian tenor Virgilio Marino, with his insinuating and incisive tone, transformed Goro, the traditional marriage agent, into a mythical trickster.
And Sian Sharp established Butterfly’s maid, Suzuki, early on with striking insolence to other characters, though as she anticipated Butterfly’s reaction to Pinkerton’s return with an American bride, her delivery of the line “She Will Cry So Much” was one of those emotional moments that had been unexpected until then.
The emotional qualities of the production are certainly linked to what it revealed of the power relationship – the blocking of the Yamadori scene where Goro tries to get Butterfly to consider remarrying Prince Yamadori (Kiran Rajasingan) since Pinkerton clearly does not return, effectively depicts angsty cross-currents in the intentions and accomplishments of the various characters.
As mentioned above, it is the musical representation that invested the first part of this production with emotion. And for that, conductor Carlo Montanaro deserves all the credit. But there were so many beautiful musical moments in all. To name just one, later in the opera, Sharpless’ beautifully tender acting gently leads Butterfly back to a reading of the letter in which her former lover (still husband) writes to her that he is returning to Japan, but not to her.
The only musical moment I questioned was the rhythm of the trio that Sharpless begins with “Io so che alle sue pene (I know there is no consolation for her anguish)”, when Sharpless, Pinkerton and Suzuki finally acknowledge the tragedy that has been created. But even here, the liveliness of the tempo underscored the heaviness of the situation rather than opting for emotional catharsis, the response I would normally have had. It was perfectly worthwhile reading.
But what about the famous love duet that closes the first act? It was a fulfilling time even though Diego Torre, the Mexican-Australian singer playing the role of Pinkerton, was ill (he returned home at intervals and was very ably replaced by Thomas Strong from Opera Australia’s young artist programme) but what elevated this love duo beyond normal expectations was an exercise in director Graham Murphy and his assistant Janet Vernon’s strengths. Both have had a long association with the Sydney Dance Company (co-artistic directors for many years) and you might expect dance to be a feature of their performance. Such was the case.
“Vieni, vieni” Torre sang decoy and suddenly there was a sense of flight in the music. “So many stars” sang Butterfly and suddenly we were on another level while two dancers (Rina Nemoto and Nathan Brook), retro-projected on the stage behind, the two singers also transformed this scene into a pas-de-deux. In the pit, conductor Montanaro tapered the closing bars of the Act with a floating gesture.
It wasn’t even the most moving ballet moment in the whole work. It was to happen in Butterfly’s night vigil awaiting the return of Pinkerton (the Humming Chorus) when wall-pinned butterfly dancer Naomi Hibberd descended from her mount to join Sae Kyung Rim in a choreographed confirmation of Butterfly’s ultimate status. in this new world.
But this is starting to sound like an academic paper and it’s not like the emotion is lost sight of.
In fact, the drama became more intense.
What we discover in the second act is that Butterfly has a son from her brief love affair with Pinkerton three years prior. Grief is usually a non-speaking role (with no lines in the libretto or score), but in this production, as Oscar Willis stood on a platform walking away from his mother and called out “Mama, Mama” , a tragedy beyond Pinkerton’s usual late cries. for Butterfly was transported.
On the contrary, Sorrow calling his mother as she prepares for suicide, made this perhaps the most devastating moment of the night.
It would be interesting to know which responses were recorded via the Opera Australia QR code.