Review / Son carries ‘Madama Butterfly’ to its tragic conclusion

Opera / “Madama Butterfly”, at the Capitol Theatre, Sydney, until November 4. Bookings to 9318 8200 or opera.org.au Reviewed by HELEN MUSA

Karah Son as Cio-Cio-San and Diego Torre as Pinkerton. Photo by Prudence Upton.

ONE of the great warhorses for Opera Australia, Moffatt Oxenbould’s 1997 “Madama Butterfly”, is presently being staged by the company for a final two-week season before the work will be retired and presumably replaced.

It must be noted that “Madama Butterfly” is not the same production that will tour to Canberra Theatre as part of its subscription season next year. That one was mounted for OzOpera some years ago by John Bell, with a reduced orchestra.

Opera Australia say the Oxenbould production “has been universally praised for its sheer beauty, the gorgeous costumes, evocative sets and Puccini’s magnificent music”.

It has been performed more than any other OA show, but on the strength of this swansong revival, its age is showing.

For one thing, Oxenbould’s effort to recreate a touch of the Japanese kabuki theatre with stylised hand gestures and very little of the “verismo” one associates with Puccini, has always meant the characters, in what is really a domestic drama involving “Butterfly”, her maid Suzuki, the American Consul and the superficial Pinkerton, simply do not convince.

Sian Pendry as Suzuki and Karah Son as Cio-Cio-San. Photo Prudence Upton.

Some realism is called for and the white clad supernumeraries hovering around the stage (also inspired by traditional Japanese theatre) intruded upon the drama.

Tenor Diego Torre, usually a passionate performer, was restrained in the love scene and duet that concluded Act I, where theatrical effects like a star-studded sky and a very long piece of fabric that wound and unwound kept the lovers from touching each other. South Korean soprano Karah Son as Cio San and Sian Pendry as Suzuki also seemed restricted by the pseudo-kabuki gestures.

The set by the then-youthful designers Peter England and Russell Cohen, such as the kabuki elements, also seemed intrusive and restrictive, with shoji screens that moved repeatedly up and down instead of sideways.

A bigger problem was that many of the voices could not be clearly heard in the Capitol Theatre. Even the orchestra seemed subdued in the normally vigorous opening bars. It must be said that Karah Son was, throughout, the exception to this, but in Act II Sitiveni Talei as the magnificently-clad suitor, Yamadori, was close to inaudible.

Despite this unpromising start, the production took off in Act II, where the sheer power of Karah Son carried the opera towards its tragic conclusion with great power and conviction. Especially compelling was the scene where she waits all night for Pinkerton to arrive.

Restaging this venerable “Madama Butterfly” is a sentimental gesture on the part of OA and a fine way of concluding the company’s stay in the Capitol Theatre while refurbishments took place at the Opera House, but now it is time to put her out to pasture.

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