Opera review: Madama Butterfly/Opera Australia

Alexia Vougaridou as Cio-Cio-San. Photo credit Branco Gaica.Image courtesy Opera Australia.
Alexia Vougaridou as Cio-Cio-San.
Photo credit Branco Gaica.Image courtesy Opera Australia.

Madama Butterfly  –  Giacomo Puccini

Opera Australia,  Sydney Opera House

27 January 2015 

Each year, Opera Australia has followed its Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour production with indoor performances of the same opera during the following year.  Presumably this is intended to entice patrons who enjoyed a performance under the stars to try ‘real’ opera inside the Joan Sutherland theatre.   Madama Butterfly was last year’s harbour opera so this year we have a revival of Moffatt Oxenbould’s 1997 production of Madama Butterfly, last seen 2½ years ago.  

Although the production is now 18 years old, and has been revived at least half a dozen times, it is an effective one which provides a good vehicle for each new team of singers.  Its principal virtue is that it serves the music so well, without any distracting directorial whims. 

The set and costumes by Peter England and Russell Cohen are traditional.  The set is a stylised Japanese house surrounded by vertically sliding Japanese screens. This is a simple, but very practical arrangement, allowing many changes of atmosphere and providing several points of entrance and exit.  A pool of water surrounds the house and this focuses attention on the central stage area.  The traditional costumes are all very attractive and enhance the characterisation.  The lighting devised by Robert Bryan is very effective and produces some beautiful stage pictures such as the stunning moonlight scene at the end of the first act.

This revival has been directed by Matthew Barclay but the dramatic temperature seemed lower than in some previous revivals.  To some extent this depends on the individual singers involved. Alexia Voulgaridou sings the title role excellently, with a large but firm spinto voice.  Eighteen months ago she gave us an excellent Tosca, but as Butterfly she does not convey the innocence and naivety required in the first act.  Of course, the title role makes impossible demands on any singer who attempts it.  The libretto explicitly states that Butterfly is 15 years old, whereas Puccini’s music requires the voice of a singer at least twice that age.  Voulgaridou was much more attuned to the dramatic outpourings of the second and third acts (which are performed without interruption in this production).

 James Egglestone repeats the role of Pinkerton which he sang in the 2012 revival.  He is tall and slim and looks good on stage.  His voice is clear and well produced but it is not a particularly Italianate sound.  On the opening night he seemed to need time to warm up.  In the first Act the voice sounded somewhat constricted at the top although in the last act it flowed much more freely.  Indeed, he was also dramatically more convincing as a penitent in the last act than as a lover in the first act.  The growing affection between Pinkerton and Butterfly was slow to develop from both sides and even in final Act 1 love duet the sparks did not really seem to fly. 

Sian Pendry is well-suited to the role of Suzuki.  Her voice continues to grow in richness and warmth and this was matched by her dramatic projection of the role.  In the last act the dramatic temperature of the performance rose quickly when she was confronted with Pinkerton’s American marriage.  From this point on, the entire performance seemed to ignite more genuine passion than had been evident previously. 

As the Consul, Michael Honeyman created a personality that was buffeted by unfolding events, but without the sense of authority that might be expected from an American overseas consul.  Perhaps this is an intentional change of characterisation, portraying Sharpless as being somewhat out of his depth.  It may also explain why he has been given an oversized costume that I don’t recall from the original production or its subsequent revivals.  Graeme Macfarlane repeated his successful interpretation of Goro without venturing too far into the world of caricature.  

The smaller roles were all satisfactorily performed.  Jud Arthur repeated his show-stopping appearance as the Bonze which is very effective both vocally and theatrically.  Samuel Dundas’s Yamadori looked a very eligible suitor for Butterfly and he sang the brief role well, though without creating the sympathetic persona that some performers aim for.  Jane Ede also successfully repeated her brief role as Kate from the 2012 revival.  It is unfortunate that Butterfly’s young son was not credited.  He did exactly what was required and managed to steal the show whenever he was on stage. 

The orchestra, conducted by Gianluca Martinenghi, gave a workman-like reading of the score, but without the passionate highlights the same players have been displaying recently in performances of Tosca.  The small chorus acquitted themselves well in their brief appearances. 

Madama Butterfly is Opera Australia’s fourth revival production of the 2015 summer season, and all four of these operas have previously been seen here in the last eighteen months.  This recent limited selection of operas has provoked understandable criticism from many regular opera attendees and a consequent wavering of interest from them.  Perhaps it may also account for the air of routine that seemed to permeate much of this revival – particularly in the first act.  It is earnestly to be hoped that the company’s forthcoming new production of Gounod’s Faust is successful and that it will help to re-ignite the company’s reputation. 

Performances of Madama Butterfly continue until the end of March with major cast changes from 19 March. 

Larry Turner for SoundsLikeSydney©

Larry Turner has been singing in choirs for many years – both in Sydney and London.  He is an avid attender of operas and concerts, with an emphasis on vocal music.  He particularly enjoys music from both the great a capella period and the baroque – especially the lesser-known works of Bach and Handel.  He has written programme notes for Sydney Philharmonia, the Intervarsity Choral Festival and the Sydneian Bach Choir and is currently part of a team researching the history of Sydney Philharmonia for its forthcoming centenary.


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