Madama Butterfly: an opera review by Victor Grynberg

July 3, 2022 by Victor Grynberg
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Bravo Opera Australia, which once more has given us an unforgettable evening.

Giacomo Puccini, the much loved late 19th and early 20th Century  Italian composer wrote 12 Operas, many of them among the most consistently popular works. The soaring,  sweet melodies of  La Boheme, Tosca and Turandot and others share the fame attributed to Madama Butterfly.  The latest incarnation of this opera has just premiered at the Sydney Opera House.

Originally set in 1904, it tells the tale of an American Naval Lieutenant (Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton ) on leave in the Japanese port city of Nagasaki renting a house and enlisting a  marriage broker (Goro) to find a wife. She is the former geisha Cio-Cio-San (nicknamed Madama Butterfly).

This new production, directed by legendary Australian dancer/director Graeme Murphy brings the production to contemporary times, replete with mobile phones and the taking of selfies etc.

This certainly doesn’t diminish the drama and tragedy of the story.

Sae-Kyung Rim as Cio-Cio-San, Diego Torre as Pinkerton, David Parkin as Bonze and the Opera Australia Chorus in Opera Australia’s 2022 production of Madama Butterfly at the Sydney Opera House.
Photo: Guy Davies

Puccini’s music is of course just magnificent the whole way through, with Korean soprano Sae Kyung Rim as Cio-Cio-San making her OA debut. She enthralled the audience with her superb singing, not just with the great hit “Un bel di, vedremo” (One Fine Day ) but with all the challenging arias and duets of her role. In both acts she completely won over the packed house, really making everybody feel her joy and love in Act 1 and her pain and suffering, and ultimate tragedy in Act 11. An outstanding performance.

Complementing her, especially in the singing department is beloved Mexican-Australian tenor Diego Torre reprising the role of Pinkerton once again.

Torre’s singing is as fine a tenor voice as one could hear in this country. Unfortunately, after the extremely heavy workload of Act I, Torre fell ill and for the first time I can recall a lead had to be replaced at interval.

Pinkerton’s role in Act II is actually very small, but his understudy Thomas Strong, more than filled this role adequately, and as would be expected was greeted at the end with enthusiastic audience applause. A young graduate of Opera Australia’s training programs I suspect it won’t be long before Strong has a lead role rather than an understudy.

A critical role in this opera is that of Suzuki, the devoted maid of Butterfly. Australian mezzo Sian Sharp is absolute perfection in this role. With convincing acting now being a requisite for dramatic opera, Miss Sharp combines this with a purity of voice.

Major roles also belong to Michael Honeyman as Sharpless,  the straight-laced American Consul. A regular with OA, Honeyman gives credibility to his role and his voice is very complementary.

The villain of the piece is the matchmaker Goro, famously hissed at the end of many productions. Australian-Italian Virgilio Marino, whose tenor voice is effective and whose evil scheming is well played.

The rest of the supporting roles are all pleasing, none more so than the always excellent choir. Charged with important material in both acts, full marks to this group.

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To my mind perhaps the greatest star of the night was a performer whose name I haven’t been able to ascertain. The child actor who plays Butterfly’s son “Sorrow”, born out of the wedded bliss with Pinkerton. “Mama, Mama” are the only words uttered by Sorrow, whose stage presence was so moving as to reinforce so powerfully the torture and pain Butterfly is going through. The torture and pain which leads to the final tragedy.

This production features Opera Australia’s digital screens, so effectively produced by Canadian Sean Nieuwenhuis. Often with very dark images, the tenseness of the drama is definitely enhanced by these screens. This is a production that could be a great success in any of the major opera houses around the world and certainly brings fresh life to an opera most patrons have known for years.

Drama is one thing, but of course, underlying everything is Puccini’s great score. Returning to lead the orchestra is Italian Carlo Montanaro, who brings out the great quality of the local musicians, and as we’ve come to expect from the enlarged opera pit, the beautiful music is heard to perfection.

Sydney Opera House

5 stars

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