OPERA AUSTRALIA: Opera Australia’s landmark production of 'Madama Butterfly', directed by Moffat Oxenbould and designed by Rusell Cohen, Peter England and Robert Bryan, is inspired by diverse Asian theatrical traditions and focuses on straightforward storytelling
Giacomo Puccini’s talent for composing heart-wrenching operas about multi-faceted female characters who are full of contradictions yet ultimately demonstrate an exceptional nobility of spirit is one of the main reasons why his works are amongst the most popular and regularly performed in the repertoire. His ability to focus on profound intimate emotions in order to illicit intense emotional reactions through music and drama is best showcased in Madama Butterfly, the story of Cio-Cio-San, a fifteen-year old geisha from Nagasaki who falls in love with a carefree American Lieutenant that only sees her as a curious possession and disposable toy which he can enjoy then get rid of at his leisure.
Opera Australia’s landmark production of this classic, directed by Moffat Oxenbould and designed by Rusell Cohen, Peter England and Robert Bryan, is inspired by diverse Asian theatrical traditions and focuses on straightforward storytelling, often letting the music be the audience’s guide and depicting Oriental exoticism without losing sight of the destructive inner struggle developing (sooner or later) inside each of the main characters. Australian sopranos Cheryl Barker and Nicole Youl have given stirring and insightful performances of the title role for Opera Australia in recent years, and the engagement of American star soprano Patricia Racette for the first half of this season’s run speaks very highly of the national company’s casting efforts for this part.
Racette’s Butterfly is above all a creature of raw emotion, passionate and giving of herself despite her troubled past. She is both child and adult at the same time, naively idealistic but with short, telling moments of self-doubt, hinting that she is not always completely convinced that things will go her way. Her vocal performance, while understandably measured in some brief instances, is a lesson in pouring out emotion while preserving absolute control over her instrument, especially during key dramatic moments. Furthermore, Racette’s portrayal is aided by an acting ability of the highest order, making her Cio-Cio-San one of the most vocally, musically and dramatically outstanding characterisations on the Australian operatic stage in recent times.
Rosario La Spina’s Lieutenant Pinkerton is vocally impressive in the louder sections of the score but lacks dramatic depth, seeming too likeable in Act 1 but not remorseful enough in Act 2. Consul Sharpless, who emphatically warns Pinkerton against what’s he’s doing but ends up helping to make things worse for Butterfly, was excellently sung by Barry Ryan, and his interpretation showed a revealingly diffident side to this culture-shocked diplomat, perhaps explaining his helplessness. The nasty marriage-broker Goro was skillfully played by Graeme Macfarlane, especially in the opening scene. Jacqueline Dark as Suzuki shone vocally and provided instants of sincere pathos in her Act 2 scenes with Racette. The minor roles were all played satisfactorily by the ensemble, especially Samuel Dundas as the lovesick Prince Yamadori.
Maestro Massimo Zanetti and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra provided many orchestral thrills, especially at the climax of each act and during the orchestral interlude. The famous Humming Chorus was exquisitely performed by the Opera Australia Chorus, which also reveled in the charming Act 1 ensemble.
Madama Butterfly, Opera Australia
Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Season: January 7 - March 3
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What the stars mean?
- Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
- Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
- Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
- Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
- Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
- Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
- Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
- One star: Awful, to be avoided
- Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level