He’s a cad, this Pinkerton. Takes a fancy to a 15-year-old, while on a tour of duty. Does the deed with her. Marries her, as a pretty keepsake, for when he pulls into port. Knocks her up. Racks off back to the US. Then reappears with another, American wife, having got wind he has a son, with a view to kidnapping the boy. What a piece of work!

I can’t help wonder if Puccini harboured some skepticism about the respectability and honour of North American naval officers when he wrote his three-act opera, Madama Butterfly, and was seeking to expose, even then, the cavalier, condescending cultural imperialism that was so evident, manifest in so many ways, for so many years. Before China, India and Korea took over, anyway.

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In any case, given that MB is indisputably one of the world’s favourite operas, one would have to surmise noone really cares that the lieutenant is a bastard, preying on the romantic idealism of an underage girl. So it’s entirely understandable Opera Australia would seek to revive it, especially since this is one of their most in-demand productions. The song remains the same, in more way than one.

Nothing can despoil the ravishing score, which tugs, tenderly but tenaciously, at the heartstrings. Moffat Oxenbould returns as director, and their could be no steadier hand on the tiller. However, call me capricious (as I’ve been complimentary about it before), but I wasn’t altogether enamoured revisiting Peter England and Russell Cohen’s design. Suddenly, the square, central wooden plinth suspended over shallow water, with its walkways east, west, north and south, looked like a rather insensitive, heavy-handed Western interpretation. Even the shoji screens don’t look delicate enough. Nor did I find the costumes as refined as they might be, this time round.

Similarly, Robert Bryan’s lighting design, while sublime at times, seemed stark and harsh at others. (If nothing else, it’s a sobering object lesson in the subjectivity, lest we forget, of the reviewer who, at the end of the day, is just as susceptible to mood as anyone else.) Matthew Barclay’s ‘movement’ was lustrous though, at least his devices for visiting soprano, Hiromi Omura: she looked graceful and at ease.

Musically though, I felt satiated. Ryusuke Numajiri is known for his affinity with Mozart, as well as contemporary music, but seems to have a real affinity with Puccini and conducted the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra with such élan the score sounded quite revitalised. Move over Verdi.

The aforementioned Omura shimmered as Cio-Cio-San (Japanese for butterfly). Her dynamic range is peerless and striking in its own right, but it’s the fragility with which she imbues her character, thanks to her untypical ability to sing pianissimo all the way to the top of her register, that truly sets her apart. And from piano to forte, the quality of her vocal production is sublime, with an uncannily precise vibrato. Dramatically, too, she’s convincing in the role; treading a fine line between modesty and wiles, making for a complex, (thereby) more interesting and challenging Madama B. Her performance (presumably calibrated by Oxenbould) provides a key to unlocking and unleashing some fresh energy from an opera all too easily relegated to the global geopolitical and social milieu of the late 19th century.

James Egglestone shows comparable sangfroid as Pinkerton, a man who feigns more innocence than he possesses. Egglestone manages to communicate this, with his unfaltering twin-turbo tenor easily prevailing above the orchestra in full flight. And his timbre is thoroughly attractive, from woe to go, too.

Graeme Macfarlane gives good Goro: this “marriage broker” is a veritable pimp and even looks something of an Oriental dandy in his costume. Vocally, his baritone proved as robust and reliable as you’d expect. The ever-popular Dominica Matthews, dare I say, as Butterfly’s handmaiden, Suzuki, sounded a little shrill, here and there, to mine ear, on the night; a long way from her otherwise velvety delivery. Mind you, perhaps it was only “mine ear”, as it didn’t dim the acclamation after.

Andrew Moran, having as I remember filled the breach, on the very morning of opening night mind you, left by a down-for-the count Michael Lewis, looked and sounded comfortable and confident as Sharpless, the US Consul; as if cookie-cut for the role (which, luckily fr all concerned, he knows intimately). Jud Arthur impressed similarly, as The Bonze; Butterfly’s censorious uncle, a kind of priestly Fonz. Both have the kind of resonant baritones that must surely make even Bryn Terfel tremble.

Madama Butterfly is probably, or arguably, the world’s most famous opera and just one listen will tell you why. While the characters aren’t all entirely likeable, there is romance aplenty in this tragic tale, one very much built on cultural imperialism and a patronising attitude towards Asia the west can no longer afford.

The details: Madama Butterfly plays the Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House until November 1. A Melbourne season opens at the State Theatre, Arts Centre on November 14. Tickets on the company website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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