Madama Butterfly at the Sydney Opera House

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Cio-Cio-San (Patricia Racette) enters in Act I. Photo: Branco Gaica.

Cio-Cio-San (Patricia Racette) enters in Act I. Photo: Branco Gaica.

Madama Butterfly
Music by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 17 January 2011
continues in Sydney until 3 March

Director – Moffatt Oxenbould
Set and Costume Designers – Peter England and Russell Cohen
Lighting Designer – Robert Bryan

Cio-Cio-San – Patricia Racette
Pinkerton – David Corcoran
Suzuki – Jacqueline Dark
Sharpless – Barry Ryan
Goro – Graeme Macfarlane
Kate – Jane Parkin
The Bonze – Jud Arthur
Yamadori – Samuel Dundas
The Imperial Commissioner – Sam Roberts-Smith
The Official Registrar – Gregory Brown

Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra
Conductor – Massimo Zanetti
Opera Australia Chorus

One could say that Madama Butterfly is a distilled and simplified presentation of the stereotypical opera plot. It is a romance told very straight with spurning, madness leading to the female lead’s suicide with good songs and a bit of exoticism, but it lacks the twists in the plot which Mozart’s operas have (at least Donna Elvira tries to chase down Don Giovanni) to deepen the characters’ relationships. This leaves all the characterization to the music and I don’t think Puccini’s is up to it. Cio-Cio-San is too pathetic and doormat-ish and it’s hard to feel into her character when the music doesn’t sink deeply enough into the listener to help them understand her or link her into the greater universe. Perhaps that is unfair to the music since the libretto and story itself doesn’t give much to go on to divine her motivations, but Puccini did choose the story. Pinkerton too isn’t exactly 4-dimensional. He is a cad with neither redeeming qualities, magnetism nor charm. Having said that, the opera can be enjoyable at some level if, as in this case, the music is well played and sung, making the more dragging parts of Act II bearable, though this enjoyment was marred by a certain noisy leading tenor.

The opening was novel and promising — complete silence with a big translucent Japanese paper screen in lieu of the curtain, behind which indistinct human forms slowly assembled, some waving large paper lanterns which glowed dimly through the curtain-screen. After about a minute, Mr Zanetti struck up the orchestra and the screen rose over the overture.

Pinkerton’s pad consisted of a large parquet slab in the centre, surrounded by a shallow moat. Characters entered through doorways with sliding paper screens along three sides of the stage which picked up light varying from pink in the first scene to a bluer hue and later white. The walls and ceiling were painted in a bronze-green mottled pattern, becoming bluish as night falls at the end of Act I. Cio-Cio-San’s friends and relations added to the scene in their highly contrasting poppy-red and emerald-green costumes with Cio-Cio-San in a magenta-pink robe. The friends and relations chorus arranged themselves symmetrically about the room, striking graceful held poses which changed in response to Cio-Cio-San and significant transitions in the music. Cio-Cio-San made quite a grand entrance in her bright many-layered kimono, with expansive arms and a proud countenance.

For the passionate duet which ends Act I, the servants floated dozens of candles in the moat and the whole back wall lifted up to reveal the moon and stars — beautifully done with a silvery spot-lit disk standing out in a field of pricks of fibre-optic light, effectively giving a sense of the infinite night sky.

Cio-Cio-San (Patricia Racette) and Pinkerton (here Rosario la Spina) at the end of Act I. Photo: Branco Gaica.

Act II used the same set, with little Japanese and American flags on the table. After Suzuki falls asleep while watching for Pinkerton, Cio-Cio-San dances about the room in an oblivious, slightly delirious way accompanied by the orchestral interlude and the moon and stars are revealed again. In the morning, Cio-Cio-San and Suzuki scatter magenta and white paper flowers and large-grained confetti about the room while waiting for Pinkerton, some floating in the moat, which eventual drains out. The final collision with Kate and Pinkerton, Sharpless and the child was rather static in this performance and Kate Pinkerton was statuesque, which may have suited the discomfort of the scene to a degree. Cio-Cio-San seemed distant and her relationship with Suzuki didn’t seem to go deeper than pity. She only really interacts with her son and otherwise lives in her own world.

Suzuki (Jacqueline Dark) and Cio-Cio-San in Act II. Photo: Branco Gaica.

Ms Racette sang beautifully with fine and consistent technique through the extended arias. Her strongest forte wasn’t at all piercing and her pianissimo projected and she did well considering the dominating loudness of her partner. If she didn’t always seem to be deeply into the character, it was the fault of the character whose shortcomings I outlined above. Ms Racette’s acting seemed to be more effective and original in Act I, giving the sense of a romantic teenager living out a dream and becoming quite flirtatious with Pinkerton and Sharpless, rather than acting the clichéd demure and ultramodest Japanese woman of western drama.

Mr Corcoran is a freak of nature. He barely opens his mouth but produces a sound loud enough to overload my ears, a blast of sound coming seemingly from nowhere. He began Act I promisingly: at its lower level his voice has a brassy tone which might have suited his character’s American youth, but in the passionate parts at the end of Acts I and II he sang at an ear-piercing level for extended periods and with a harsh tone. It really felt as if he were doing damage to my hearing; coming out into Circular Quay after the opera they had that dull fatigued feel as if they’d been to a rock concert. Whether Mr Corcoran intended to blast his audience in an attempt to make the opera more exciting and sensory or whether he doesn’t have a good sense of the acoustic space of the Opera Theatre (he had the same problem in Rigoletto last year), he did ruin the duets and ensembles and caused only apprehension when he came back on in Act II. The opera would have been much more enjoyable if he had kept his level in check and if I’m going to ruin my hearing I’d rather it be Bruce Springsteen than Puccini. At least one knows to bring earplugs to a rock concert.

Mr Ryan’s voice had a pleasant brassy tone which would have been a nice foil to Pinkerton’s but was drowned out in the ensembles in Act II, though it was better he didn’t try to be heard over Mr Corcoran. Sharpless is also a difficult rôle to get into: he plays along with Pinkerton’s philandering even while sensing the evil in it and finally sympathizes uselessly with Cio-Cio-San in Act II, but Mr Ryan did well considering he never seemed too ridiculous.

From the tight, more-than-the-sum-of-their-parts strings in the opening notes of the overture, the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra played precisely and consistently. Mr Zanetti didn’t lose any passion by this but rather was more expressive through the added control and more effectively supported and complimented Ms Racette. He conducted quite dynamically, stretching out his whole upper body as if he were pulling taffy, but never produced a soupy or sentimental phrase. The solo violin accompaniment in Act II likewise had feeling but was not overwrought.

Messrs Cohen and England’s set and costumes were pretty and worked well with Messrs Oxenbould and Barclay’s placement and direction of the characters and chorus.

About the author

Andrew Miller

Andrew Miller lives in Sydney and writes mostly about music and theatre, especially ballet and opera.

He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Sydney, and once studied the piano and trombone.

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