Murray Dahm talks to Madama Butterfly star Virgilio Marino

June 29, 2022 by Murray Dahm
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The character of Goro in Giacomo Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly is essential to the opera’s drama.

Sian Sharp as Suzuki and Virgilio Marino as Goro in Opera Australia’s 2022 production of Madama Butterfly at the Sydney Opera House.   Photo Credit: Guy Davies

Goro, a marriage broker, is the bridge between the western world of Lieutenant Pinkerton and the consul Sharpless and the traditional Japanese characters. What is more, he is present for a lot of the opera – more than Butterfly’s husband! He is, however, self-serving and always in it for the money. He is, therefore, that rare thing in opera – a tenor villain. When I spoke with Virgilio Marino, who reprises the role of Goro which he created in the Graeme Murphy production in 2019, we talked about the role and how Goro gets a raw deal! This production, which opens on June 29 and runs until July 30, doubles down on Goro’s villainy: ‘he’s terrible in this production’ said Marino, ‘even worse than in other productions.’ Although it is rare that Goro is played sympathetically, there is a case to be made that he tries to save Butterfly from her fate by arranging (another) marriage to the rich Yamadori. But Butterfly will have none of it – she persists in her belief that she is truly married to Pinkerton. This is one of the elements which makes the tragedy of Butterfly so painful – everyone knows that Butterfly is deluded – Suzuki, Sharpless, Goro, the audience.

But Butterfly does not, and her optimism keeps us in her thrall thinking maybe Pinkerton will reform and choose her over a ‘real American wife’. In traditional productions, Goro is often seen in a combination of Japanese attire with elements of western dress such as a bowler hat or spats. In this production that is gone – he has dreadlocked hair and an almost biker-esque leather ensemble of armadillo-like leather jacket and trousers with panels. I noted that the panels look sort of like the panels of traditional Samurai armour but Virgilio told the story that when he met with the costume designer and director for his first costume fitting, the jacket had kimono sleeves which were rejected as not the look Murphy was going for at all. The costume also means that Marino must move in a particular way – something he thinks about constantly, ‘how would my character actually move.’ Nor is that the only non-traditional aspect to this production – this is a dystopian monochrome Japan, with everything black and white and only Butterfly displays a judicious splash of red – that colour, of course, carries deeper significance too. And this production moves away from the traditional bowing and other facets of Japanese culture.

Marino has done the role before (including a two-performance day where he sang Pinkerton at the matinee and Goro in the evening!) but every time he comes to a role he is always ‘looking to do things differently’ and find nuances and tweaks that may not have been present in earlier takes on the show as well as take the input of a new creative team on board. We spoke of the challenge of Goro who is not a beloved character (and yet, other tenor villains – characters like Pinkerton, the Duke in Rigoletto, Mime in Siegfried or Peter Grimes for instance – always end up with some sympathy; no such luck for Goro!). Whereas, if you were being generous, you might say Goro is a match-maker or marriage broker, he gets people what they want, a realist, in this production he leans far more towards being a pimp, a ‘cheap nasty salesman that is out to make as much money as he possibly can and doesn’t care who he hurts.’ Marino, has bought into his villainy, however, in this production. Goro gets no moment of redemption, unlike Pinkerton in his ‘Addio fiorito asil,’ so there is no choice but to embrace it. Such a dark, selfish vision suits the Matrix-like dystopia of the production. And this vision is deliberate, to set the production apart especially from the iconic long-serving and well-beloved Moffat Oxenbould production.

Marino is Brisbane based although he is spending much of his time in Sydney (he sang Pong in Turdandot and Cassio in Otello in summer and he will return to Sydney as Uldino in Verdi’s Attila for the third-time-lucky production in October). He told Maestro Carlo Montanaro (who conducts this season of Butterfly) that they had met before – during rehearsals for Offenbach’s Contes des Hoffmann last year (Marino was understudying Hoffmann). Maestro Montanaro did not remember meeting Marino – but that was because the rehearsals were held over Zoom (with the maestro, director and costume designer all in quarantine). The singers were in the Opera Centre rehearsal rooms with the Assistant Director. And then lock-down meant the maestro, director and costume designer had to fly back to Italy having not completed their quarantine period. ‘Opera Australia has been brilliant’ at dealing with all the curveballs and ever-changing landscape of Covid restrictions and Marino is simply grateful to be back doing what he loves, largely thanks to the whole team who have worked so hard to make and keep opera happening. His favourite roles are in the French repertoire – especially Gounod’s Faust (he has understudied the role for Opera Australia). He has also sung the Duke in Rigoletto and there are exciting things on the horizon, but first he will be fully embracing the villainy of Goro until the end of July.

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