Madama Butterfly review

Theatre
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Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Opera Australia's future-focussed Butterfly doesn't quite soar

You couldn’t accuse choreographer and director Graeme Murphy of having a shortage of ideas for his new production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. It’s Opera Australia’s first new mainstage version since Moffatt Oxenbould created the company’s definitive, traditional staging in 1997. It’s a lot to live up to, and Murphy clearly understood his task: bring something new to one of the most popular operas in the canon.

The production begins with the eponymous figure descending from the heavens suspended by red shibari (Japanese bondage) ropes, arranged to resemble giant wings. We’re in some sort of high-end sex club, with grabby businessmen crawling over one another to reach women suspended in air. It’s a striking and somewhat unsettling image, but it’s only deployed fairly briefly before we’re in the house that American naval officer Pinkerton (Andeka Gorrotxategi) has rented in Nagasaki to live with Cio-Cio-San (Karah Son), the 15-year-old girl he plans to marry – just until he finds a “proper” American wife.

Murphy uses the 12 high-definition LED screens to create a digitalised house, where everything slides back and forth using a handheld device – a little like Google Home – complete with a digital servant to bring glasses of whisky. 

It seems, at this point, that Murphy’s vision might be of a Butterfly where sexual objectification sits up against the dehumanising effect of technology – the way that technology allows us to objectify people who aren’t part of our own, immediate world. But as is often the case in this production, Murphy doesn’t follow the idea far enough and abandons it before it’s able to take hold. It lacks a coherent dramaturgical vision, which is reflected in the design. Michael Scott-Mitchell’s production design and Jennifer Irwin’s costumes are attractive and bold, but the visual references are too eclectic to build a consistent world for the opera’s characters to live in; ranging from the modern street fashions of Harajuku to Japanese minimalism, and Americanisms including an ’80s perm and even a copy of Jackie O’s pink Chanel suit.

There’s enough happening on stage that you’ll never be disengaged, but Murphy can’t quite pin his Butterfly down (although there is an all-too-obvious image of a woman as a butterfly actually pinned to a board). For a production with so many impactful choices, it feels curiously like Murphy is fence-sitting when it comes to one of the most problematic operas in the canon. Madama Butterfly is tricky because it’s weighed down by Orientalism and the cruelty at its core. Puccini mixes romance with tragedy and asks us to invest in a relationship between a powerful American naval officer and the 15-year-old girl who he abandons after duping her into sex.

Murphy touches on the cruelty of men who claim land and people as their property but doesn’t examine it fully; he has Pinkerton holding Cio-Cio-San by the throat as they begin their second act duet, but then leans into the eroticism and romance of Puccini’s music. It jars uncomfortably with what we’ve just seen. There are versions of Madama Butterfly that critique colonialism and the patriarchy, but this production lacks the courage to go there.

Thankfully the music elevates everything happening on stage, with the Opera Australia orchestra in spectacular form under conductor Massimo Zanetti, who tastefully pulls every bit of yearning and pain from Puccini’s score. He also has great musical chemistry with Karah Son, who is an exceptional Cio-Cio-San, tracing the character’s descent from optimism to devastation. Smartly, she becomes a very different character depending on who she’s around and the role she has to play to survive.

Andeka Gorrotxategi plays Pinkerton as an appropriately oblivious invader, and deploys his exciting upper register to strong effect. Sian Sharp also makes a big impact as Cio-Cio-San’s loyal servant Suzuki, costumed gorgeously in a smartly tailored pants and jacket ensemble.

The Opera Australia chorus also have plenty to do throughout the opera, playing a number of roles. Their most effective appearance is in the ‘Humming Chorus’, appearing as abstract, ghostly white figures, moving slowly as one mass on the onstage revolve. It’s a gorgeous image, but with little connection to anything else happening in the production. You’re left thinking “that was beautiful, but so what?” Unfortunately, that’s a thought you’ll probably find yourself returning to across the opera’s three acts.

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