A Fragile Beauty
05/04/2015 - & May 6*, 9, 12, 14, 16, 22, 30, 2015
Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly
Hiromi Omura (Cio-Cio-San), James Eggleston (Pinkerton), Sian Pendry (Suzuki), Michael Honeyman (Sharpless), Graeme Macfarlane (Goro), Katherine Wiles (Kate Pinkerton), Jud Arthur (The Bonze), Samuel Dundas (Yamadori), Jonathan McCauley (Commissioner), Dean Bassett (Registrar)
Opera Australia Chorus, Anthony Hunt (Chorus Master), Orchestra Victoria, Guillaume Tourniaire (Conductor)
Moffatt Oxenbould (Director), Peter England & Russell Cohen (Sets & Costume Designers), Robert Bryan (Lighting Designer)
H. Omura (© Courtesy Opera Australia)
Opera Australia first presented this visually rich production of Madama Butterfly in 1997 and subsequent years have seen its regular revival. It continues to attract praise perhaps because of its gorgeous vision of the fantasy world of Geishas and possibly because it has the drama unfold on a pared-back stage, focusing every grain of attention onto the text. The audience is drawn into every nuance of the libretto, every hint at the demise which Cio-Cio-San alone cannot foresee. It is a sparse telling of the tale and simultaneously, one filled with elaborate tableaux referencing a refined and delicate culture easily deceived and thoughtlessly cast aside by brash Westerners.
The design for the production is simple: a square wooden performance platform reminiscent of a Noh stage surrounded by a shallow moat with bridges to the rear and wings of the stage. Walls resembling oxidized bronze enclose the space and translucent paper screens slide down containing the image, are backlit suggesting activity beyond the “little house on the hill”, or open revealing curtains billowing in the breezes from Nagasaki Harbour. It is a highly evocative setting, redolent of the essence of Japanese theatre – minimalist, even austere but concentrating attention upon the complexity of the plot and the intensity of the performance.
The costume design is another matter: vivid and sometimes ostentatious kimonos reflect the former glories of Butterfly’s family and the prestige of her would-be suitor Yamadori. As The Bonze, the stentorian baritone of Jud Arthur commands a shuddering respect. Portrayed as the red Devil of the Kabuki theater, he brandishes his staff, glows with rage and strikes fear into Cio-Cio-San and her relatives as he spits curses and damnation.
Opera Australia stalwart baritone Graeme Macfarlane is a performer of vast repertoire. He has created a Goro to make the flesh crawl; a conniving, slimy character whose motivations are base at best and monetary for the most part. Mr. Macfarlane’s acting skills are renowned in this company and the surety of his pitch and diction handle the difficult, patter-like prattle of this character with ease and style. This is a most convincing performance.
Michael Honeyman’s Sharpless is an interesting foil to the heartlessness of other characters. He worried, father like, over the wedding contract and transitioned his doubts about Pinkerton into an open revilement of the character. Where Butterfly never ‘grows up’, he sees reality all too clearly and rejects the values his countrymen represent and he is paid to defend. Mr Honeyman creates a credible character, torn by loyalties and fears. His baritone is a beautiful match for the tenor of James Egglestone and in the Act 1 duet, they shone brilliantly.
Of the other characters, Sian Pendry’s interpretation of Suzuki is remarkable. Ms Pendry has a gloriously rich and fluid mezzo with an enviable depth to the chest register, but she produces a delicacy of tone in the Act 2 duet which superbly underpins the emotions of the plot, contrasting perfectly with the soprano of Hiromi Omura. Her Suzuki is much more than a servant; of a comparable age, she is the antithesis of Butterfly’s naivety. Ms Pendry’s performance was marvelous and justifiably received massive applause at the curtain.
James Egglestone gave a complex and strong-voiced performance as Pinkerton. His voice has a rich variety of hues and a great power which is only hinted at early in the opening act. With Michael Honeyman his voice is perfectly paired; together, they achieved superbly rich tones in their duet. Inevitably, the role must be measured against the Love Duet and his intensely potent sound contrasted perfectly the delicate interpretation of this number by Ms Omura. Mr Egglestone’s acting is entirely plausible. He could hardly believe his luck in securing the exotic wonder of Butterfly and his virile race to the bed chamber drove the end of the first act towards a cliff-edge that neither of the protagonists could predict.
Hiromi Omura returns to Opera Australia for the second time in this production. Hers is a towering performance which earned well-deserved acclamation. The strength of her voice brought deep passion to ‘Un bel di’; her acting ability gave new insight into the delicacy and innocence of the child-bride; and her intimate knowledge of the nuances of Japanese etiquette lent an authenticity to the whole production. But it was her voice which brought the house to cheering acknowledgement. Secure, richly-coloured yet inherently youthful in tone; and, great power bringing the intensity of her emotions to life.
Orchestra Victoria continues to shine and under Maestro Tourniaire they again achieve a most pleasing sound. There was lightness of touch which rendered the orchestra almost invisible at times. Yet, they remained capable of searing a jolt through the theatre with the blast from the cannon and ominous threats of the inevitable climax which rumbled beneath the main score.
Despite its age, this is a beautiful Madama Butterfly which brings much to our understanding of the lure the exotic East held for early 20th Century Europe and the depths of emotion contained in a simple commitment to love.