“MADAMA Butterfly” is an opera full of contradictions.
One of the world’s most famous grand operas, it is domestic in scale. Its heroine, the delicate butterfly-like Japanese child bride, Cio Cio San, must sing dramatic arias with a full-bodied, mature woman’s voice. The opera’s leading tenor, Pinkerton, has some of the most beautiful music ever composed to sing, yet he is an out and out swine. And historically, like its equally famous counterparts “La Traviata” and “Carmen”, it bombed at the box office when first presented at La Scala during 1904.
Barcelona director, Àlex Ollé, celebrated for his productions with the company La Fura dels Baus, approaches this outdoor production with a mixture of thoughtful minimalism and grandeur. Played out on a huge grass stage designed by his collaborator, Alfons Flores, it owes something in its refinement to traditional Japanese theatre, with the entry of the 15-year-old bride, Butterfly, a bamboo grove set high upstage.
Yet both Ollé and Flores are well aware that this story of exploitation in the Third World (although Japan hardly counts as that now) by thoughtless Americans has resonance in 2014, so the Act II settings sees Butterfly’s romantic little house on the hill surrounded by construction sites, one of which, cheekily, has the sign “Pinkerton Constructions” on it, even though the script clearly shows that the ardent sailor, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, is still in the navy.
And they take full advantage of the spectacular setting of Sydney Harbour, with a huge moon and a huger sun being lifted aloft by cranes. The hapless suitor Prince Yamadori leaves the scene in a speedboat and we can watch his journey around the harbour.
Costume designer Lluc Castells has it both ways, with a mixture of beautiful kimonos and modern dress for the bridal party, traditional kimonos for the bridesmaids and delicately-pleated diaphanous version of the bridal gown for Cio Cio San that opens to reveal tattoo-like undergarment inscribed with a butterfly. In the final act, Butterfly, more often seen in shorts and T-shirt – more like “Miss Saigon” than “Madama Butterfly”.
The wedding scene is embellished with the inevitable harbour firework display, more modest than we’ve seen in the past. But spectacle, it seems, is less on the mind of Ollé and his cast that this year poignancy of this story, in which the delicacy and innocence of the young bride is contrast to with the heartless cynicism of the American sailor who comes to town, buys himself a wife and casts off as soon as he can get back to America and marry a “real” bride. Although it’s always been there in the libretto of this opera, it has rarely been as well delineated as it is in this production.
In part, that delineation owes its power to performances of two secondary characters, Canberra-trained baritone Michael Honeyman as the American Consul, Sharpless (shared with Barry Ryan) and mezzosoprano Anna Yun as Butterfly’s maid, Suzuki (shared with Victoria Lambourn). On opening night Honeyman in particular gave powerful voice to the view that the thoughtless Pinkerton should take care.
The two characters who tug at the heartstrings of the audience, however, are the central ones – Hiromi Omura (and Hyeseoung Kwon) as Butterfly and Georgy Vasiliev (and Andeka Gorrotxategi) as Pinkerton. From the moment Omura appears on stage, she is simply riveting, with her powerful voice reaching both the depth and the heights of emotion. Vasiliev, radiant in his amorous overtures in Act I, almost makes us forget how superficial he is.
Conductor Brian Castles-Onion and his magnificent orchestra are hidden from our view in this production, and the singers are miked to do battle with the elements on the harbour, but this touching “Butterfly” is music to the eyes and ears.