Thursday, July 18, 2019

No tears for Graeme Murphy's bold approach in Opera Australia's new production of Madama Butterfly

Somewhere futuristic and far-fetched, a new and reimagined Madama Butterfly from Opera Australia has replaced the sensitively drawn floating world of abstracted tradition that so intrigued for more than 20 years from director Moffatt Oxenbould. For the company’s new investment in one of the repertoire’s most popular works, choreographer and director Graeme Murphy has dug deep, bringing sexual exploitation and sinisterness to the fore in the darkest Butterfly you’re likely to see. And of course, how could Murphy not resist bringing his choreographic nous to the stage? The problem was, I had later realised, that no tear was shed when Cio-Cio-San ceremoniously prepared herself for the knife’s fatal delivery as she farewells her three year-old son and dreams of her husband returning are shattered, only to find he does so with an American bride.

Are those tears of importance? I’ve never known a Butterfly in any other way. But the sum effect in Murphy’s production of often literal and symbolic use of text to bring storytelling alive in imagery on 10 lofty high-definition LED screens - as breathtaking as some of them are - and with no end of wild and puzzling effects, is often counterproductive, confusing, distracting and zaps the emotional heart of the work. Murphy does, however, find moments to expose the opera’s musical and vocal drama without hindrance, namely in Acts 2 and 3.

As if to wash one’s hands of allusions to the ignorances imbedded in Orientalism, America appears stuck in the 1960s while Japan is a highly advanced technological world light years ahead. But it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what the concoction means. Pinkerton’s simple naval uniform, Sharpless’ light suit and Kate Pinkerton’s obvious reference to Jacqueline Kennedy’s pink Chanel suit are nothing on the daring culturally distilled and theatrical excesses of the Japanese world achieved in Jennifer Irwin’s amazing costumes.

While the first darting and beating bars of the music open, Murphy spreads the butterfly motif across the full width of the stage with a Cio-Cio-San double in red ropes of bondage as men writhe about in attempts to grope scantily clothed women above. Fair and square, Cio-Cio-San is a victim and pushed further, a strong sense of her objectification rings through. Assigned to her persona are brashness and gritty astuteness but it often feels at odds and forced.

The action is mostly concentrated on what looks like an oversized burner of a glass-top electric cooktop, raised and sprouting from the stage floor on a revolve and connected by a staircase as part of Michael Scott-Mitchell’s production design. At times it feels precarious and restricting but it provides a good platform for the voices to project while so much seems to be happening around it.

In too many instances, sumptuous soprano Mariana Hong’s powerful performance on Tuesday night was compromised by all this digital and visual indulgence but her Cio-Cio-San’s inner strength, spark and directness beamed. The top of the voice catapulted with splendour, her range delivering a wealth of expressivity and only the use of extended pianissimo missing opportunities to craft a greater sense of vulnerability. But Hong’s “Un bel di vedremo” was paced with convincing beauty, an impactful sound picture as the aria’s translated Japanese script bubbles out from around her then comes crashing to pieces, in one of the more skilful scenes, as the vision ends.

As Pinkerton, Diego Torre’s wonderfully passionate and voluminous tenor was put to expressive use, giving you that rare sense of sympathy for the spineless cheater Pinkerton is as he struggles with remorse. Together with Hong, the voices shared penetrating soul in Act 1’s duet of private post-nuptial tenderness but why on earth were a male and female dancer projected large on a scrim in front of them? Mezzo-soprano Agnes Sarkis’ strident vocal display as a strong-headed and loyal Suzuki matched well with Hong’s resolve. Warmth and compassion oozed from smooth baritone José Carbó in distinguished style as the Consul Sharpless and Virgilio Marino, robust in voice and mixing amiability and slyness in equal parts as Goro, was impressive. It wasn’t all smooth sailing in the Opera Australia Chorus but the “Humming Chorus” wafted dreamily en pointe despite another scene that raised question marks, created as a dream sequence Cio-Cio-San walks through.

Fortunately, the score’s delicacy, lyricism and drama fluoresced under conductor Nicholas Milton’s lead, the strings in particular responding with alertness and character and the attack on key dramatic moments delivered with heartfelt playing.

It’s a show of dazzling turns and ideas that eventually exhaust. Nevertheless, I want to witness this Madama Butterfly again, to give it another chance and see if I can derive something more, even without demanding tears, from its bold approach.

Madama Butterfly 
Opera Australia
Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
Until 10th August, 2019

Production Photos: Prudence Upton

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