Having been fortunate enough to have experienced many stagings of Madama Butterfly over the years, this particular version remains high on my list of favourites, due mainly to its success in bringing the opera into the 21st century to make some powerful statements about modern society, while still respecting the intentions of the composer.
Since its 2014 season on Sydney Harbour, this production of Madama Butterfly has been staged in the ruins of Caracalla and the Circus Maximus in Rome; the only one of the HOSH productions to have been seen overseas.
Director Alex Olle states in his program notes that the ultimate meaning of the opera is the loss of paradise. Then by setting the opera in the present day, and utilising the dazzling views of Sydney Harbour at night, with its spectacular skyline of illuminated skyscrapers, opera house, Harbour Bridge and nearby botanical gardens, this would be the perfect setting to illustrate this thesis.
His designer, Alfon Flores, came up with a remarkable outdoor setting of lush green lawns in a picturesque park where engineers can be seen busily taking measurements as the opera begins. At one end of this park, event organisers are erecting decorations and chairs, while at the other end; caterers busy themselves arranging tables, chairs and refreshments for a lavish wedding celebration.
During this activity, Pinkerton (Diego Torre), (in this version no longer a naval officer, instead, a smartly -suited property developer), arrives with the American Consul, Sharpless, (Michael Honeyman). They inspect the preparations, and check over the legalities of his marriage agreement.
Pinkerton has a cavalier view of his marriage to Cio-Cio-San (Karah Son). He regards it as a bit of a fling, taking opportunity of the peculiarities of Japanese marriage laws, before returning to America to find an American bride.
As Sharpless suggests to Pinkerton that he should take the wedding more seriously, the wedding guests begin to arrive. Impatient to get the ceremonials over and learning that his bride-to-be is also known as Butterfly, he tells Sharpless, If I crush her wings, so be it.
In a magically staged entrance the marriage party arrives through a grove of bamboo trees over the top of the hill. Cio-Cio-San is dressed in remarkable cocoon-like robes accompanied by attendants who appear more interested in the champagne than their bridesmaid duties.
After being introduced to Pinkerton, Butterfly tells him that while her family were once wealthy, she has had to earn a living working as a geisha. As a sign of her devotion she will renounce her religion to embrace his, and then proudly shows him her treasured possessions, although hiding the ceremonial sword with which her father committed suicide.
The marriage agreement is read, followed by fireworks, but while the guests are congratulating the couple, Butterfly’s uncle, the Bonze (David Parkin), (in this production a gang lord), arrives with his henchmen. The Bonze berates Butterfly for embracing Christianity while his henchmen start overturning the chairs and tables.
Pinkerton steps in and orders the Bonze to leave, which he does. But so do Butterfly’s relatives and friends, who, shocked by the revelation that Butterfly has renounced her religion, also disown her.
Butterfly and Pinkerton are left alone among the debris. In a moment of intimacy, Butterfly reveals a large tattoo of butterfly wings on her back, and as a large yellow moon rises over the horizon, they declare their love for each other.
During the interval a remarkable set-change occurs in full view of the audience, which heightens Olle’s Paradise Lost concept. An army of workmen move in, uproot the romantic bamboo forest, tear up the lush lawns and in their place begin constructing a multi-storey structure beside a large sign displaying “Pinkerton Construction Corporation”.
When the opera resumes it is three years later and Butterfly is living in a section of this still unfinished building, with her faithful servant, Suzuki (Sian Sharp) as her companion. She’s now eschewed traditional dress and embraced all things American, wearing a T Shirt emblazoned with an American flag and denim shorts which reveal her heavily tattooed legs and arms.
Although nearly penniless, and despite Suzuki’s pleadings, she clings to Pinkerton’s promise that he will return. When Sharpless arrives with a letter from Pinkerton, she’s convinced that the letter is to tell her that Pinkerton is coming, and unwittingly frustrates Sharpless’s attempts to read the contents of the letter to her.
Their conversation is interrupted by the arrival of the marriage-broker, Goro (Virgilio Marino) accompanied by the wealthy Prince Yamadori (Alexander Hargreaves) and a marriage offer for Butterfly to marry Yamadori .
Butterfly is adamant that she’s not available for marriage and sends both men packing, before introducing Sharpless to her child; Pinkerton’s son, Sorrow (Kai Cihlar).
Too upset by this revelation to tell Butterfly that Pinkerton’s letter advises that he’s returning with this American bride, Sharpless leaves, though not before promising Butterfly that he will inform Pinkerton that he has a son.
A cannon shot signals the arrival of Pinkerton’s ship in the harbour, at which an excited Butterfly joins Suzuki in strewing the house with flowers, before draping herself in her wedding gown to go up on the roof to await Pinkerton’s arrival.
In the previous version of this production, Butterfly was joined by Suzuki and Sorrow to sit all night watching out over busy Sydney Harbour, as they waited for Pinkerton’s arrival, while The Humming Chorus was sung by the off-stage chorus. It was a magical and memorable moment
In this revival however, Butterfly sits alone on the roof while a procession of presumably homeless people sing the Humming Chorus as they process past Butterfly’s house. Regretfully, this change not only takes the focus away from Butterfly’s reverie, it also resulted in some uneven singing from the chorus as they struggled to keep pitch while negotiating the tricky steep stage in near darkness.
Other blemishes on the otherwise superb staging occurred at the end of Act 1 and Act 3, when the lights came up too early causing Butterfly and Pinkerton to destroy the magic they had created by having to exit in full view of the audience, as well, the surtitles are positioned about 12 inches too low, making them difficult to read by the majority of the audience.
Perfect casting as the impetuous and tragic Butterfly, Karah Son acted with assurance and achieved a consistently beautiful vocal tone throughout. Her superb rendition of One Fine Day provided one of many vocal highlights during the evening.
Her Cio- Cio-San was no longer a prettily preserved butterfly pinned and displayed as an example of the customs of a bygone age, but instead a vibrant, modern young woman who saw her marriage to an American as a way to a new life and prepared to do whatever it takes to achieve it
Surely one of the great tenor voices of his generation, Diego Torre filled the vast stage with his mellifluous vocals whenever he stepped on stage. He brought depth to his characterisation as the ambitious young man who didn’t recognise paradise when he found it, thereby destining himself to a life of regret as the result of his decisions.
Michael Honeyman, as the thoughtful, dignified consul, Sharpless, perplexed by his friends attitude to his responsibilities but helpless to prevent the inevitable tragedy that resulted; Sian Sharp as Butterfly’s warm, caring friend and confidant, Suzuki, and Danita Weatherstone as Pinkerton’s American wife, Kate, all made notable contributions to the production.
Brian Castles-Onion, who’s conducted every opera so far in the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour series, drew a superb account of Puccini’s beautiful score from the Opera Australia Orchestra ensuring that each of the luscious arias and ensembles succeeded in capturing the joy and tragedy inherent in this glorious opera.
Madama Butterfly on Sydney Harbour
Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquaries Point, Sydney
Performance: Friday 24 March 2022
Season continues to 23 April 2023
Information and Bookings: www.opera.org.au
Images: Diego Torre as Pinkerton and Karah Son as Cio-Cio-San in Opera Australia’s 2023 production of Madama Butterfly on Sydney Harbour – photo by Keith Saunders | The cast of Opera Australia’s 2023 production of Madama Butterfly on Sydney Harbour at Mrs Macquaries Point – photo by Hamilton Lund | Karah Son as Cio-Cio-San in Opera Australia’s 2023 production of Madama Butterfly on Sydney Harbour – photo by Keith Saunders