From the very first moment, you know it’s going to be a resplendent production. Peter Farmer’s costume and set design immediately set the aesthetic bar high and Stanton Welch’s choreography follows suit, as Butterfly veritably soars, in the introductory vignette. It’s deja vu for many of The Australian Ballet; not least artistic director, David McAllister, who was “there, in the studio, for the entire rehearsal period”, in 1995, when Welch set about creating a ballet which has since been adopted in to the repertory of any number of companies, around the world.
This all-Australian (well, almost) adaptation of Puccini’s tragic opera is every bit as eloquent, sans libretto; if not moreso. No small thing when once considers the sophistication and complication of the narrative; ‘though a little prior knowledge doesn’t go astray. The astonishing thing is this was SW’s first full-length ballet (he was only 25 at the time of its delivery, but conception began when he was still a teenager, enchanted by the story) and has shaped-up as one of the AB’s most successful.
For the dancers, it remains one of the most challenging, demanding as much emotional investment as physical development. Thanks to the close-to-continental English designer, perhaps, we’ve a very idealised vision of the Oriental world, as seen through the prism of what looks to be a kind of French romantic sensibility (in the form of Japonisme). However you might read it, what’s exquisite is the nexus between the delicacy and fragile beauty of the score and the subtle palette of colours painted-in by Farmer’s brush, as evident in both sets and, especially, costumes. And I do mean painted-in: all the scenes were hand painted by the man himself.
Complicit in this axis of elegance is John Lanchberry, who has adpated and arranged the score so sympathetically and the mutual respect between him (unfortunately, no longer with us) and Welch is palpable in the polished result, in which design, music and movement are as one. Guest conductor Ormsby Wilkins does every note justice, too, with the help of the ever-astonishing, invigorated Opera & Ballet Orchestra.
Best of all, no aspect of the manifold artistry of this work is tainted by any kind of gimmickry, trickery, or flashiness.
Were Disney to get its hands on the story, I can well imagine it having the incorruptible Sharpless rescue the destitute and broken Butterfly, sweeping her off her delicate feet, to live out her days in a stately version of New York city, or perhaps somewhere upstate. (One of the many enchantments of this work is the way in which, for example, Welch has repeatedly hinted at a sneaking, barely concealed admiration Sharpless has for Butterfly, but thankfully, he’s had the judgment to leave it at that, rather than tease it out to the point of obviousness.) But, I’m afraid, barring that eventuality we have to abide the desperately tragic outcome. Fortunately, there’s such a depth of breathtaking winsomeness to take us there, making the journey so affecting and sensual, we can live with tragic, bloody suicide. After all, like father, like daughter: “to die with honour is better than to live without it”. Unless your Chris Skase, or Muammar Gaddafi, anyway.
One won’t find so much as a little pinky out of place and although one can’t fail to be impressed by Daniel Gaudiello, as the embodied conscience, Sharpless, and Reiko Hombo, as Cio-Cio-San’s ever-faithful servant, Suzuki, it’s the leads of Kevin Jackson, as Pinkerton, and Madeleine Eastoe, as Butterfly, that win the most attention and adulation.
All in all, it’s Stanton Welch, though, that’s luminous, even from behind the scenes. He has recreated Puccini’s work in what looks to be his own image, for Butterfly becomes, in his gentle hands, much more the weightless thing of fragile beauty its name conjures. Even Pinkerton seems more charming and likable than his dastardly character should rightfully afford. At the same time, albeit ever-so-demurely, Welch has managed to insinuate some political commentary: on the belligerent chauvanism inherent in traditional Japanese society, as well as the vacuous, self-seeking superficiality that still pervades the idle, chattering classes in the North American context.
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Narratively, East meet West meets disaster. Artistically, subtlety meets high drama meets the aesthetically sublime.
The details: Madame Butterfly is playing the Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House until April 27. Tickets on the company website.