‘Madama Butterfly’ a sensation but is it opera?

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Wedding scene. Virgilio Marino as Goro, Karah Son as Cio-Cio-San, Alexander Hargreaves as the Commissioner, Andeka Gorrotxategi as Pinkerton, Michael Honeyman as Sharpless, with the chorus. Photo: Prudence Upton

Music / “Madama Butterfly” by Puccini, conducted by Massimo Zanetti, directed by Graeme Murphy. Opera Australia. At Sydney Opera House, until August 10. Reviewed by HELEN MUSA.

IF Graeme Murphy’s new production of “Madama Butterfly” signals anything, it is that he considers Puccini’s music insufficient to the task of conveying love, passion and devotion.

For such a dressed-up “Butterfly” has rarely been seen on our stages.

In place of a delicate contrast in the negotiation of relationships is black and white – quite literally.

For the digital scenic decoration by Sean Nieuwenhuis, often laid over Michael Scott-Mitchell’s diagonal rotating stage edged with knife-blades, is largely monochrome – black and white moving stripes, post-Nagasaki bombing clouds of black smoke, and expressionist brushstrokes of black.

There is some colour – red and blue for the American flag, gold for the rich Yamadori, pink spray-paint for flowers and red cord, perhaps symbolising the tragic heroine’s powerlessness.

Karah Son as Cio-Cio-San. Photo: Prudence Upton

The very odd costumes by Jennifer Irwin were mostly abstractions from traditional female Japanese costuming, with a hint of post-apocalyptic costumes for the men, S&M-inspired black patent leather for the fragile heroine Cio Cio San (Butterfly) and a weird folded paper crane for the sinister Bonze to wear. It was hard to make sense of this.

Murphy never lets well enough alone. Even the glorious love-duet which ends Act I was compromised by a digital overlay of ballet dancers doing vaguely graceful things in front of the diminutive upstage figures  of the bridal couple. This is a travesty of Puccini’s passionate wedding night, weakening the force of “Vogliatemi Bene” (Love Me Please) at end of the love duet.

Further compromising the impact was the appearance of the nasty marriage broker Goro taking prurient snaps of the couple with his IPhone.

Nieuwenhuis’ digital interventions continue in Act II, with even the famous aria “Un bel Di” (One Fine Day) interrupted with digital sleight of hand in the form of Japanese characters appearing onscreen, only to tumble in a heap. Perhaps it was intended to suggest Butterfly’s emotional condition, but the powerfully affecting aria, sung in a full-blooded manner by soprano Karah Son, would have been quite enough.

It is stating the obvious to say that Murphy is first and foremost a choreographer. The opening tableau of blood, torment and sadomasochism, the aforementioned balletic overlay to the love duet and the introduction of a butterfly-like dancer on the wall seemed out of place enough.

But, then in Act III, completely ignoring the onstage torment of Butterfly as she, her little boy and her maid Suzuki wait for Pinkerton all night, Murphy introduced an Agnes de Mille-style dream sequence  to cover the long spinning chorus and extended intermezzo. It was impossible to avoid the impression that he considers all that music theatrically dull.

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

The strengths of this new “Butterfly” for OA are in the singing, the extraordinary string section in the pit and the sensitive  conducting of Massimo Zanetti, to which I could add the excellent surtitles, which gave a very clear idea of the dialogue and action, especially in in Act I.

But none of the principals was helped by the directing. The emotional engagement was perfunctory and stereotyped.

The handsome Andeka Gorrotxategi as Pinkerton sang “Amore o grilli” (Love or Fancy) lustily in Act I, but his self-pitying angst in Act III seemed false and over-egged.

As Butterfly, Son looked ill-at-ease with the more playful and provocative aspects of her role, which surface in the scene with Yamadori. This means she came  out as  victim rather than tragic protagonist.

As Suzuki, Sian Sharp, not helped by Irwin’s inexplicable decision to costume her as a male, seemed disengaged from and critical of Butterfly.

Only Michel Honeyman, surely one of OA’s treasures, convinced us as the American consul, Sharpless, of the human drama he was witnessing.

Happily, even Murphy and his creative team could not sidestep the stark tragedy of the final moments in the opera. The scene where  Pinkerton embraces the dying  Butterfly brought the night to a swift conclusion   pictorially reminiscent of curtain scenes by the late director, Franco Zeffirelli.

This production, like the company’s digitalised version of “Aida” seen last year, signals a move into an area of art that has more to do with sensation than opera.

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Helen Musa
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