Madama Butterfly

Lyric Theatre (Opera Queensland)


Brisbane is treated to something really special with Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka’s debut performance of Butterfly in Opera Queensland’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s enduring opera.

Dyka sings and acts the role with enormous confidence and power. Her voice is thrillingly strong and in perfect shape, with control and lyric beauty across the full range. Added to this, she acts the part with conviction, depicting a Cio-Cio-san who is a fascinating mixture of the vulnerable, naive, foolishly optimistic and courageous.

Her characterisation crowns a high-quality although not flawless production, in which singers, orchestra and direction come together very well.

This is the local version of Opera Australia’s production which Moffat Oxenbould first directed 10 years ago. It’s had various runs interstate since then, but this is its first Queensland appearance. Despite its national acclaim, it didn’t work for me quite as well as the last Butterfly we saw in 1999.

Certainly the direction is dramatic in its intensity. It succeeds both in depicting the realisation of Cio-Cio-san’s hopes in her marriage to Pinkerton, and the disintegration of her world in Act 2, through the interactions between Butterfly, Suzuki, Sharpless and Kate Pinkerton.

But some aspects disappoint. The arrival of Butterfly and her entourage should be one of the magical moments of opera, traditionally replete with lanterns and parasols. Oxenbould’s approach is to have Butterfly’s bridesmaids or attendants enter individually from centre upstage, faces shrouded, until finally Butterfly herself appears. It may provoke mystery, but it lacks the charm of representing the group making their hesitant way up the hill to present the bride to the groom.

The production eschews bulky sets and fixed props, instead using sliding doors and effective lighting for changes of scene. The action takes place in Butterfly’s house, basically a flat stage with several low platforms, the whole surrounded by a moat filled with real water (which Management reassuringly announced was from more abundant northern regions!).

Facilitating the action are anonymous cloaked figures who rapidly and silently move items about or bring necessary props to the performers, as well as helping with on-stage costume changes. This device is effective in allowing fluidity of motion and developing a Japanese theatrical tradition, as in bunraku puppet plays, but it’s puzzling that these functionaries are clad in light cream colored garments, rather than the invisibility of black. There are times, particularly during delicate lighting effects, that they loom all too obviously rather than disappearing into the darkness. It’s also a little comical to see them splashing their way across the moat as they come on and off stage.

The design is also amiss in the colours and appearance of many of the lavish costumes. In a production touted as traditional the designers have not captured an authentic Japanese “look”, with the colours generally far too bright and gaudy. A more traditional concept needs such elements as the light pinks, pastels and floral patterns for the women’s garb, and perhaps darker blues or greys for the men.

Mind you, attempts at verisimilitude are challenging when much of the libretto and storyline are fanciful projections of 19th Century Italian images of Meiji-era Japan. A case in point is the storming in of Cio-Cio-san’s uncle to denounce her conversion to Christianity, with his dark references to her soul’s eternal damnation, an absurd transference of medieval Catholic notions to Zen Buddhism. With painted face matching his orange dress he appears like a figure in a kabuki ghost story, his intervention so grotesque that it might have been better to depict is as Cio-Cio’s nightmare.

Veteran United States tenor Jerry Hadley performs well as US naval lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. Yet despite knowing the role well he didn’t seem entirely comfortable in this production on opening night. There was some straining in upper registers and occasional infelicities in intonation. He also manifestly had great difficulty donning his yukata during the love scene. By contrast, a fall by Dyka later in the performance was successfully laughed off by the soprano.

Pinkerton is one of the great cads of opera, and Hadley successfully plays him as an oily sort of character (yet one whom it is difficult to believe Cio-cio-san would so admire). Hadley seemed startled at his first curtain call appearance to receive a ripple of boos, intended I think for his character rather than his performance, but it was certainly unusual at an OQ opening night.

John Bolton Wood is a powerful Sharpless, the US consul in Nagasaki. His singing is spot-on as is his acting his distaste for Pinkerton’s morality is evident. Mezzo Jacqueline Dark, who sings clearly and expressively as Suzuki, is caring and attentive in her concern for her mistress, although at times her facial emotions of gloom seem exaggerated.

Tenor Christopher Dawes successfully captures the cunning essence of Goro, the marriage broker, while the several cameo roles are all carried off well, in both singing and acting mezzo Anne Fulton as a dignified second Mrs Pinkerton, baritone Jason Barry-Smith as a pining Yamodori sporting long black locks, bass David Hibbard as the outraged Bonze, Mark Penman and Brett Carter as bureaucratic-looking officials. A memorable non-singing performance comes from five-year-old Cameron Beggs as Cio-Cio and Pinkerton’s child Trouble an audience favourite.

There isn’t a lot for the OQ chorus, but their contributions, including the soothing humming chorus, are as usual excellent.

Peter Robinson’s Queensland Orchestra provide a rich and well-balanced sound. Percussion work is particularly good, including convincing cannon shots and repetitive beats at dramatic moments. Butterfly is rare among operas in having long sequences of orchestral music without singing, which often exposes an orchestra’s weaknesses or even a tinny sound from the pit. This one is pleasantly different.

Most of the magnificent moments are in the intense duets between characters Butterfly and Pinkerton’s love duet is splendid, but so too are the interactions between Butterfly and Suzuki, Suzuki and Sharpless and Sharpless and Pinkerton. The vocal highlight is, however, that old favourite, “One fine day”, which earned sustained applause.

Final quibbles: the Japanese have a well-known tradition of removing shoes at the entrance to their homes, which I’m sure even US consuls and naval officers would not have been permitted to flout hence it’s jarring to see Pinkerton and Sharpless clumping about the house in their boots. And, the US flag looked suspiciously as if it had 50 stars, when everyone American schoolchild would know that in the early 1890s it had only 44!

But all that aside it’s a production well worth seeing, with, in Oksana Dyka, an absolutely magnificent soprano who is rocketing to stardom.

Playing until 2nd June 2007

— John Henningham
(Performance seen: Fri 18th May 2007)