Graeme Murphy’s amazing re-imagining of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is as much a feast for the eye as it is for the ear. His stunning use of LED screens and video projections, together with Michael Scott-Mitchell’s shiny revolving metal and Perspex setting and Jennifer Irwin’s amazing costumes, transports the viewer into a mesmerizing, surreal world, in which the audience can experiences the character’s thoughts and emotions as well as listen to their voices and watch their actions.
In this world, when Cio- Cio-San sings Un bel di verdremo (One Fine Day), her words flutter around her. When she and Pinkerton express their love for each other, their passion is represented by floating images of semi-nude dancers. A dream sequence illustrating Cio-Cio-San’s state of mind as she waits for Pinkerton’s return is bravely performed by Cio-Cio-San and dancer Teagan Lowe on a precariously high raked stage.
The opera commences dramatically with a stunning tableau in which a scarlet bound butterfly figure plunges to the stage into the arms of a distraught Pinkerton – a portent of the events to follow.
It’s obvious from the beginning that Pinkerton, dashingly portrayed on opening night by handsome Spanish tenor, Andeka Gorrotxategi, had no intention of a lasting marriage with Butterfly and was simply taking advantage of the Japanese law which allowed husbands to walk away from their marriage.
However Cio-Cio-San (Korean soprano, Karah Son), appeared complicit, happy to denounce her family and her religion to enter into a marriage-at-first-sight arrangement with Pinkerton to escape her life as a geisha and achieve her dream of living in America.
The marriage ceremony, during which she denounces her family, is stunningly staged in a fantasia of black and white stripes. Following which Cio-Cio-San, unnerved by her family’s response to her denunciation, but advised by Pinkerton “not to cry over croaking frogs” retires with Pinkerton for an erotically staged night of passion.
Pinkerton returns to America, having promised Cio-Cio-San that he would return for her. However after the passage of three years, during which, unbeknownst to Pinkerton, she has borne him a son, Cio-Cio-San refuses to believe any suggestion that Pinkerton may have abandoned her.
Having rejected offers of marriage by the wealthy Yamadori (Christopher Hillier), Cio-Cio-San finds herself in straitened circumstances but refuses to give up her dream of a new life in America for her and her son. Supported by her loyal servant Suzuki (in this production given a rather aggressive interpretation by Sian Sharp) becomes obsessed with waiting for Pinkerton’s return.
Pinkerton in the meantime has asked his friend Sharpless (Michael Honeyman), to inform Cio-Cio-San of his marriage and that he is bringing his new wife to meet her. However when Sharpless learns of the child, he is unable to bring himself to give Cio-Cio-San Pinkerton’s message, leaving Cio-Cio-San to make the discovery of Pinkerton’s marriage herself.
Knowing that she could never willingly give up her son, Cio-Cio-San decides that the only way to insure his happy life in America is to kill herself, and does so, centre stage and shockingly, just as Pinkerton arrives.
As with his previous productions for Opera Australia, Murphy calls on his well-honed choreographic skills to create a succession of mesmerizing theatrical sequences while carefully focusing attention on those details of the storyline which offer new insights and possibilities.
In Karah Son he has a perfect Cio-Cio-San – a superbly accomplished singer willing to take the risks involved in moving away from accepted interpretations, and with enough confidence in her acting skills to immerse herself totally in the music and production to create a deeply moving performance.
Surrounding her is a fine cast of experienced singers, each responding to the heightened reality of Murphy’s vision to create characters that sear themselves into the psyche while paying homage to Puccini’s sublime music superbly performed by Opera Australia Orchestra under the direction of Maestro Massimo Zanetti.
Graeme Murphy and his team of creatives have made imaginative use of the latest technology to create an extraordinary production which illuminates and celebrates the genius of Giacomo Puccini by transporting its audience into a new dimension.
Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point, Sydney
Performance: Friday 28 June 2019 – 7.30pm
Season continues to 10 August 2019
Information and Bookings: www.opera.org.au
Image: Andeka Gorrotxategi as Pinkerton and Karah Son as Cio-Cio-San in Opera Australia’s 2019 production of Madama Butterfly at the Sydney Opera House – photo by Prudence Upton
Review: Bill Stephens OAM