Madama Butterfly: an opera review by Victor Grynberg

October 25, 2017 by Victor Grynberg
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Last July Victoria’s Minister for Creative Arts, (in)famously accused Opera Australia of being happy to have an audience that will “die in their seats”.

His complaints centred around OA’s productions being not adventurous enough and not funding new Australian works.

Opera is by its nature the most expensive of all the creative arts to stage:

A chorus of 20-30, a trained ballet group, an orchestra of 50-60 players and normally between 10 and 20 specialised singers.

No wonder that opera companies around the world are increasingly sharing the costs of new productions and relying on previous box-office successes for their repertoire.

To my mind therefore, the question to be asked around every opera and performance is “Did the audience like it?”

Judging by the standing ovation given by the near 2000 person audience, this restaging of Moffat Oxenbould’s original 1995 production of Madama Butterfly was more than liked – it was loved.

They loved the Opera, the production and whether young or old (the audience consisted of a very wide demographic), nobody was willing to die in their seats.

Giacomo Puccini, whose fame and popularity just falls below Giuseppe Verdi wrote only 12 operas compared to Verdi’s 37. Of these 12, 3 were the short operas, Suor Angelica , Il Tabarro and Gianni Schicchi.

Remarkably his biggest individual hit aria “Nessun Dorma” came from Turandot, an opera completed only after his death in 1924 and premiered in 1926.

Significantly this masterpiece came at the end of the great Italian operatic tradition, and Jerome Kern’s Show Boat , the first of the great modern musicals premiered just one year later.

Butterfly, premiered in 1904, these days always features in the top ten of opera popularity rankings around the world. However it wasn’t always so – after a disastrous premiere in February that year, an extensive rewrite and reworking was done before a May triumph.

This revival, directed by Hugh Halliday, remains much as I remember the production from 20+ years ago.

The simplicity and effectiveness of the set combined with excellent lighting enhanced the story. The elegance of the combination of water, silk, timber and paper made the Japanese feeling complete. This time it was being presented on the wider stage of the Capitol Theatre, rather than the narrower confines of the Joan Sutherland Theatre. Both acoustically and physically the transformation worked very well in this short-term headquarters for OA in Sydney.

Coincidentally the Capitol was where MISS SAIGON, the modern interpretation of the opera was staged in its Sydney run – helicopter and all. From a novel  written by French author Pierre Loti, “Madame Chrysantheme “ in 1887, John Luther Long was inspired to write a short story named Madame Butterfly. David Belasco then wrote a one-act play. And then along comes Puccini. His music, always glorious, was heard to its’ full beauty thanks to the open pit of the Capitol. No more the stifled sound of the closeted pit at the SOH. Ably led by local favourite Brian Castles-Onion, the orchestra has to my ears never sounded so good before.

I’ve seen Butterfly on stage at least 10 times over a 50+ year period of opera going. I can’t remember hearing a better soprano than Korean Karah Son making her OA debut as Cio-Cio-San. But it was her acting that made the total performance so outstanding. In the minutes before she takes her own life the silence of the audience was palpable, so involved were they with her character. And they all knew how it would end!

Number one on the “hit “parade for this opera has always been “Un Bel di”, (“One Fine Day”), where three years after the then 15-year-old Geisha has married Pinkerton and converted to Christianity, and a child has been conceived, Cio -Cio -San sings wistfully, longingly for the “homecoming” of her beloved Lieutenant . After all, he had promised to return for her. A very moving rendition beautifully sung.

My personal favourite is the ten minute love duet (“Vogliatemi Bene”) sung by Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San before their first night together at the end of Act 1.

Australia’s favourite Mexican import Diego Torre, not looking exactly like a traditional Lieutenant Pinkerton, nonetheless excelled in his partnership with the great Son.

Just as good a duet was the long second half number between the anxious Cio-Cio-San and her loyal servant Suzuki, (Sian Pendry). In a faultless cast Goro (Graeme Macfarlane) ,U.S. Consul Sharpless (Barry Ryan ), The Bonze (Gennadi Dubinsky) and Prince Yamadori (Sitiveni Talei ) all sang and acted their roles with quality and conviction.

Full credit to director Halliday for bringing this all together, so that an operatic stalwart felt fresh and involving at all times.

This production is playing only for 10 days at the Capitol, with an alternate cast likely to be just as good. For lovers of opera, and those who’ve never been to an opera before, this production is highly commended. It is in fact a masterpiece that any Opera Company around the world would be proud to stage. 5/5

Opera Australia’s MADAMA BUTTERFLY

Capitol Theatre, Sydney. October 24


3 Responses to “Madama Butterfly: an opera review by Victor Grynberg”
  1. Debbie Scholem says:

    I wish I had been there to experience this amazing performance. Thanks to Victor Grynberg’s excellently detailed review -I almost feel I was. One small thing. He wrote “…Remarkably his biggest individual hit aria “Nessun Dorma” came from Turandot, an opera completed only after his death in 1924…” left me scrathing my head. With no explanation as to how Puccini did this amazing, miraculous and death denial-ing feat I can only presume it was on a par with Dynamo’s magic tricks.

    • victor grynberg says:

      Thanks Debbie for your comments. It would be marvellous to say there was a special courier sent from Heaven with the completed Opera. But the truth is more mundane. Puccini, a heavy smoker was diagnosed with throat cancer in 1923. he knew he was racing against the clock to complete Turandot. he even left instructions that should he die before completing the work Riccardo Zandonai should complete it.
      At his death Puccini had completed Acts 1 and 2, including orchestrations. and fully orchestrated Act 3 up until Liu’s death. the last music he ever wrote. he also left behind 23 pages and sketches, (piano/vocal )with occasional notes for the end of the opera. In the end Franco Alfano put this all together in true Puccini style and a masterpiece was born

  2. Peter Strasser says:

    I did not see this particular performance of Madama Butterfly, but if it was half
    as good as Victor Grynbergs incisive review… then it must have been an
    inspiring production

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