Madame Butterfly

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Published: 19th July, 2018

Madame Butterfly had its Opening Night at the Drum Theatre in Dandenong Friday July 13th, and is now touring regional centres – Opera Australia’s website lists 27 theatres –  from NSW through to Tasmania over the next few months. The Opera Australia website also notes that this touring production of Madame Butterfly, directed by John Bell, has been selected for the 2018 VCE Theatre Studies Playlist (Unit 4).

This production was accompanied by a chamber orchestra – just one of each of the usual orchestral instruments, rather than the full sections of each for which the work was originally scored. This had an interesting effect – in many ways, it contributed an intimacy, a personal closeness throughout the performance. Just twice I found myself missing the lushness of the fuller orchestrations in versions I had seen in the past, however this at no time diminished the effectiveness of the presentation. The dramatic aspect of the story, if anything, was heightened and intensified by this chamber approach.

A number of other elements combined to concentrate the emotional connection with the piece. This is an English language production, and though I had seen several productions in Italian and knew the story, there was still some surprise at the directness of the material when translated thus. For example, hearing Pinkerton proclaim that he “Plunges his anchor wherever he’s inclined” is not the same as seeing it on surtitles!

Pinkerton’s role is a challenge both to the performer and the director – it would be easy to see him throughout as simply unworthy of Cio-Cio san’s love. Here, he was undoubtedly callow from the start, but this was a nuanced reading – his youthful bravado and self-absorption did not seem beyond the possibility of maturing to someone capable of the depth needed for a true relationship. Early on we connect with him, feeling that this could go either way. Even knowing the story, the knife-edge was apparent. This is possibly what made his callous abandonment and final insult to his first wife all the more shocking.

Matthew Reardon as Pinkerton negotiated both the vocal demands of the role and these dramatic subtleties with complete aplomb. All of the performers were vocally strong, clear, and dramatically appropriate, but special mention must go to Cio-Cio san, and Anna Yun as Suzuki – these performances were touching on every level.

It was wonderful to see the fruits of Opera Australia’s Regional Children’s Chorus Program here. This program provides for local children from schools receiving wonderful training to be able to perform alongside the professionals. Surely this is one of the most inspiring gifts a child could have. It was rather fun to see the children as natural and excited as at a school concert – the discipline of the fourth wall was unknown to them. There was the child giving a wave to friends or family, the boy grinning from ear to ear, the girl whose face showed deepest concentration, but all contributed beautifully in the chorus passages of the opera.

The set and lighting are beautiful and effective. Visually this production mixes periods somewhat with some elements from the mid twentieth century, and some clearly earlier references, emphasising the ongoing nature of this story. Opera Australia has promoted this piece as “a love story that reaches across cultures, across oceans, across time” without a hint of the tragedy to ensue. There are also of course, political parallels too – Madam Butterfly echoes the world the work was born in. The era of American gunboat diplomacy was well established by the time the novel on which Puccini based his opera was written, and it is easy to see the insensitivity and clumsiness of Pinkerton’s engagement with the Japanese culture as representative of America, as well as the stern reproach from Bonze – representing Japanese authority. The rest of Cio-Cio san’s friends and family – and indeed the American consul, Sharpless – gently and wistfully warn her that this marriage will not last.

Pinkerton leaves, taking at face value the Japanese laws that allow desertion to be an automatic divorce, without any sensitivity to Cio-Cio san’s undying commitment to him, or to the broader Japanese social culture – beyond the simple letter of the law – that would make such a desertion almost unthinkable, except in the most extraordinary of circumstances. The marriage broker tries to interest her in another suitor, pointing out that by law, she is already divorced. None of this swerves her devotion to Pinkerton.

Her devoted watch for him of course has its highlight in one of the most haunting arias in all of opera – One Fine Day. The applause for Sharon Zhai’s exquisitely delicate and expressive performance was heartfelt and very lengthy.

Pinkerton returns years later, with his American wife, only for the purpose of taking the son he sired with Cio-Cio san back to America. He intends to avoid even seeing her. Suzuki tries to reason with him, other friends and family become involved, and try to break the news gently to Cio-Cio san that he has not come back to be with her.

What follows is the most intense agony of self-delusion giving way to realisation – this production portrayed in the most moving way imaginable. Her people comfort her, with the justifiably famous humming chorus. The children’s chorus was wonderful. In the morning Pinkerton is unable to avoid Cio-Cio san, finally persuaded that he should face her. In this final scene she suicides in front of him as he opens the door to the house they shared together. I don’t remember this scene ever having the impact it did here.

Director John Bell has succeeded in refreshing the impact of the story for those of us who know it well, and succeeded at making a traditional opera connect brilliantly with an audience who possibly were seeing it for the first time. At curtain calls, a significant portion of the audience actually booed the villain, so swept up in the drama had the audience become. I thought, “Don’t you realise that the show is actually over – he’s not that person anymore!” Such was the dramatic power of this production of Madame Butterfly.