Review / ‘Butterfly’ suffers from a big-theatre staging

Music / “Madama Butterfly” by Giacomo Puccini. Opera Australia. At Canberra Theatre, until September 8. Reviewed by TONY MAGEE

Sharon Zhai as Cio-Cio-San and Kershawn Theodore as Sorrow. Photo by Jeff Busby

DIRECTED by John Bell, this setting of Madame Butterfly is a touring production and by necessity uses a simple set, easily bumped in and packed down, with a chamber orchestra of 11 players and a small cast of nine principals.
Strengths of this production include strong performances by the soloists and beautiful and remarkably voluminous playing and support by the small orchestra, conducted by Warwick Stengards.
In the vastness of the Canberra Theatre, I found the unchanging set visually tiresome over the two and a half hours of performance (which included a 20-minute interval). Simple, essentially colourless, sliding screens were used as a stage backdrop with a further curtained backdrop behind those. Occasional coloured lighting washes helped vary the atmosphere somewhat, but these were few and far between.
An acoustic quirk of the venue makes for an easy-to-hear and very detailed orchestral sound coming from the pit in front of the cast. The cast themselves were placed back within the depths of the stage on a raised platform and a great deal of the singing went up, rather than out. Lower and mid-vocal registers were hard to hear. Only when the score called for them to use their upper more powerful registers could we hear the drama and intensity of the singing.
Sung in English, it should have been easy to follow the story. Mathew Reardon as Pinkerton and Michael Petruccelli as the matchmaker Goro both had excellent diction and contributed to the advancement of the plot significantly. Reardon in particular made an impact with his superb tenor voice. The remaining principals, while having good voices, had poor diction.
Singing the title role of Butterfly, Sharon Zhai was excellent and presented a thrilling and heartfelt performance. She made a beautiful entrance in a veiled costume exuding gentleness and elegance, which she later disrobed, revealing her beauty. A huge role and one which she sang with control, power and projection.
Puccini originally conceived Butterfly as a three-act opera. Four more revised versions in two acts followed, version five from 1907 being the one normally performed around the world today. Act two is incredibly long and I found it tedious after a while, saved by the famous humming chorus, sensitively and well sung by the Woden Valley Youth Choir, with a very welcome blue colour lighting wash, as Butterfly’s child is soothed to sleep. The dramatic and tragic conclusion also revived the interest, as Butterfly decides what to do after circumstances are taken out of her control. I shall not spoil the ending for you.
I can see this production being most effective in a small space and intimate setting, in country towns and other regional centres. It does not transfer well to a full-size theatre in a capital city and gave the impression of being a bit B-grade overall.
 

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