Thursday, 25 October 2012

Madam Butterfly needs new wings

Thanks to Caitlyn for her enthusiastic and insightful company on Tuesday night. It was a mixed night for me, moving but frustrating too.

Madam Butterfly
His Majesty's Theatre
October 2012

I first saw Andrew Sinclair’s production of Madam Butterfly decades ago and it was the first time opera moved me deeply. It was partly the story of a teenage Japanese girl’s sacrifice of family, faith and eventually her son for a faithless American sailor, and it was also the exotic beauty of the set and music.

Puccini did everything right when he set David Belasco’s popular play about a marriage of convenience between a sailor stationed in Nagasaki and a Japanese geisha. The romantic tragedy is perfectly paced and decadently scored. WA Opera have been staging Butterfly roughly every six years, most recently in 2006 although there was an unstaged Opera in the Park performance in 2008.

Director Andrew Sinclair’s early 20th century French interpretation of Puccini’s east-west tragedy was fresh and original when it premiered in 1993. If you haven’t seen Madam Butterfly before this will be a good introduction. But the Monet-inspired waterlilies, the impressionistic Japanese costumes and the revolving wooden house (designer Kenneth Rowell) are looking familiar and worn. A sensational cast were required to justify dusting it off for the fourth time.

Fortunately American soprano Kelly Kaduce didn’t disappoint as Cio-Cio-San, giving a deeply felt performance with a rounded, mellow soprano inflected with giggles, tenderness and rage as her character required. Angus Wood was a golden-toned Lieutenant Pinkerton, singing with youthful brashness that a sailor’s life isn’t complete until he’s ‘picked the flowers of every place he’s visited’ and taking the boos at curtain call good naturedly.

Cio-Cio-San’s maid Suzuki was sung by the dutifully concerned Fiona Campbell whose face reflected in every scene the truth Cio-Cio-San was avoiding. James Clayton was the increasingly disapproving American Consul Sharpless and Andrew Foote was Cio-Cio-San’s ever hopeful suitor Prince Yamadori. The kimono-clad WA Opera Chorus shuffled and bowed as Cio-Cio-San’s wedding entourage and were fiercely condemning when they discovered her secret conversion to Christianity.

The clash of east and west is written clearly into Puccini’s music, with tam tams and pentatonic scales versus The Star Spangled Banner references. In 2006 Joseph Colaneri’s conducting was one of the highlights of the performance. Returning now as the company’s artistic director, Colaneri was equally satisfying. The WA Symphony Orchestra were lush and cohesive, injecting the drama required to drive the opera to its devastating conclusion.

I’ve now seen Madam Butterfly five times and my son is a similar age to Cio-Cio-San’s blue-eyed Japanese baby so the opera has taken on a new power. But I won’t go see it again. With only three staged operas a year this repetition of even the most enduring opera favourite runs the risk of overkill.

The current season of Madam Butterfly follows the revival of the museum-piece production of Lucia di Lammermoor. Is dusty repertory opera all that is left after the effort to create a new production like Elektra? I think Perth deserves better.


 This review copyright The West Australian 2012.

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