Opera Australia 2022 Review: Madama Butterfly

Sae Kyung Rim Shines in a Unique Production

By Gordon Williams

Photo credit: Guy Davies

One of the first things I noticed in the program booklet for Opera Australia’s June production of “Madama Butterfly,” the first opera in their 2022 Sydney Opera House winter season, was a QR code which you could scan to give Opera Australia feedback on “Historical attitudes towards race, faith and gender…found in many traditional opera stories…”

During the summer season, Opera Australia was accused of insensitivity in its portrayal of “Turandot’s” Beijing courtiers Ping, Pang and Pong. “Madama Butterfly,” set in Japan, is similarly risky territory. How should “Madama Butterfly” be presented these days when we must be so careful of cultural and racial stereotypes?

In 2017 Seattle Opera curated a series of seminars and explanatory writings around a production. In 2019 Pacific Opera Project in Los Angeles presented the work in the languages the characters would have spoken, with Japanese translation by conductor Eiki Isomura. It was striking when Butterfly (who is also known as Cio-Cio San) attempted phrases in English.

Distancing Effect?

So it was interesting to anticipate how Butterfly and her Japanese compatriots would be portrayed in OA’s revival of Graeme Murphy’s 2019 production (Shane Placentino was Revival Director). How to avoid harking back to old stereotypes? One hesitates to present Butterfly as a fragile victim notwithstanding she asks her suitor, the opportunistic American naval lieutenant Pinkerton, at the outset of their Act one love duet, if it is true, as she has read, that in his country beautiful butterflies are pinned to display boards. You might therefore understand by that, that she herself is stuck in this potential predicament though momentarily blind to Pinkerton’s blithe disregard for the sincerity of her feelings in his taking advantage of the country’s then lax contracts (Puccini set the story in the early 1900s) to marry the 15-year-old.

In Murphy’s production which premiered on June 29th, South Korean soprano Sae Kyung Rim’s command of Puccini’s score and her vocal dominance lent her Butterfly quite a degree of knowingness. It would be a particularly noxious invader who could entrap her; but there was a huge red web as a design feature and even as a bridal headdress in Act one. Who could escape?

Does this mean that this production, in its tracing of a power relationship between suitor and object of desire, and its variety of costumes constantly taking us out of the frame (the costumes were by Jennifer Irwin), is not moving, the principal demand many people would make of a Puccini production? Not at all,  but it turned out to mean that we could be moved by different moments; even by Butterfly’s – that is to say Rim’s – agency. It’s wonderful when a production can make you aware of corners of a work that have not previously been considered so revealing.

Admittedly, there were times in this production when I wondered if it may have been updated too much, to the point where we may not be able to empathize. “Sensationalized” might be too strong a word, but it did seem a bit cute when someone asked for whisky and a magic servant on the LED screens (Kevin Chen) served it or when designer Irwin had the ensemble decked out in Harajuku street style. Yet, the wide differentiation in Irwin’s costumes mentioned above nicely separated the characters’ functions. Bass David Parkin as The Bonze, representative of traditionalism in the story, wore a kind of origami bird hat. Kate Pinkerton, Pinkerton’s American wife (played by soprano Jane Ede), who turns up at the end as a shocking dash of new reality for Butterfly, presented middle class American “normalcy” in her “Jackie Kennedy” pink coat and pillbox hat.

Glorious Music

Back-projected images of people in bondage, revealed what the production thought of Pinkerton’s exploitative attitude to his 15-year old bride. Strong social commentary, but fortunately for me the music continued to provide the expected poignancy throughout the first half, even while the production provided an element of distancing (It’s an ongoing question whether Puccini’s music anaesthetizes an audience-member to the deeper implications of his plots or should, and the extent to which productions should compensate).

Sae Kyung Rim gave us a Butterfly who seemed more in possession of her aspirations than is often the case. She dominated the stage from her first arrival in the marriage procession. Her big number in Act two “Un bel dì” when she visualizes Pinkerton’s return, authoritatively felt out the shapes of her big number giving us a full dimension of her tragedy. Isolating her upstage and providing a graphic of falling kanji letters amplified this sense.

The danger of a successful “Un bel dì,” however, is that it becomes a stand-alone highlight and climax that interrupts the drama. But in this production I noticed more than ever before that Butterfly has another, later, just as telling, monologue (“Vedrai, piccolo amor”) and in this, the partnership of Sae Kyung Rim with the Opera Australia Orchestra under the direction of Carlo Montanaro, built compellingly on the desperate optimism of her previous number. Rim’s pealing out of the name of Pinkerton’s ship, the “Abramo Lincoln,” expressed deeply a conflation of her true love with mistaken faith in the reliability of the American cad, Pinkerton, and Rim’s rising up over the swell of an orchestral climax (on a dominant 13th, perhaps traditional harmony’s most intensely-emotional chord) conveyed an anguish in her situation that, for me, bordered on unbearable.

As for other characters, baritone Michael Honeyman invested huge warmth and commonsense into the sympathetic character, Sharpless, the American consul who from the opera’s very opening moments senses the tragedy that it’s in store by Pinkerton’s marrying with Butterfly. Australian-Italian tenor Virgilio Marino, with his insinuating, incisive tone transformed Goro the traditional marriage-broker into a mythical trickster.

And Sian Sharp established Butterfly’s maid, Suzuki, very early on with a striking insolence toward other characters, although as she anticipated how Butterfly would react to Pinkerton’s return with an American bride, her delivery of the line “She’ll cry so much” was one of those hitherto unexpectedly-emotional moments.

The production’s emotional qualities certainly arose in relation to what it revealed of the power relationship – the blocking in the Yamadori scene where Goro tries to get Butterfly to consider re-marriage with Prince Yamadori (Kiran Rajasingan) since Pinkerton is clearly not coming back, effectively portrayed anguished cross currents in the various characters’ intentions and realizations.

As mentioned above it was the musical portrayal that invested the earlier part of this production with poignancy. And for that, conductor Carlo Montanaro deserves full credit. But there were so many beautiful musical moments altogether. To mention but one, later in the opera, the beautifully tender playing as Sharpless gently drew Butterfly back to a reading of the letter in which her former lover (still husband) writes her that he is returning to Japan, but not to her.

The only musical moment I questioned was the pace of the trio which Sharpless begins with “Io so che alle sue pene (I know there’s no consolation for her anguish),” when Sharpless, Pinkerton and Suzuki finally acknowledge the tragedy that has been created. But even here the briskness of the tempo emphasized the fraughtness of the situation rather than opting for emotional catharsis, the response I would normally have had. It was a perfectly valid reading.

But what of the famous love duet that ends Act one? It was a fulfilling moment though Diego Torre the Mexican-Australian singer taking the part of Pinkerton was ill (he went home at interval and was very ably replaced by Thomas Strong from Opera Australia’s young artists program) but what lifted this love duet beyond normal expectations was an exercizing of director Graeme Murphy and his assistant Janet Vernon’s strengths. Both had a long association with Sydney Dance Company (co-artistic directors for many years) and you might expect that dance would be a feature of their interpretation. Such was the case.

“Vieni, vieni” sang Torre in luring fashion and suddenly there was a sense of flying in the music. “So many stars” sang Butterfly and suddenly we were on a different plane as two dancers (Rina Nemoto and Nathan Brook), back-projected on the set behind the two singers, transformed this scene also into a pas-de-deux. In the pit, conductor Montanaro tapered off the Act’s closing bars with a fluttering gesture.

It wasn’t even the most moving balletic moment in the whole work. That was to come in Butterfly’s night vigil awaiting the return of Pinkerton (the Humming Chorus) when the butterfly pinned to the wall, dancer Naomi Hibberd, came down from her mounting to join Sae Kyung Rim in a choreographed confirmation of Butterfly’s ultimate status in this new world.

But this is starting to sound like an academic paper and it’s not as if the emotion was lost sight of.

In fact, the drama became more intense.

What we discover in Act two is that Butterfly has a son from her brief Act one love affair with Pinkerton three years before. Sorrow is usually a non-speaking role (assigned no lines in the libretto or score) but in this production, as Oscar Willis stood on a platform receding from his mother and called out “Mama, Mama” a tragedy beyond Pinkerton’s usual, belated cries for Butterfly was conveyed.

If anything, Sorrow calling out for his mother as she prepares for suicide, may have made the moment the most devastating of the night.

It would be interesting to know what responses have been recorded via Opera Australia’s QR code.


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