11 November 2008

Madama Butterfly

Madama Butterfly
Opera Australia
11 November 2008
State Theatre, the Arts Centre

Opera Australia’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly was first seen in 1997. Directed by Moffatt Oxenbould, it is still powerful and relevant today and is an ideal introduction to the sweeping emotion and grand music of this wonderful art form.

The archetypal story of Pinkerton and Butterfly was inspired by a short story, a novel and (possibly) actual events, and continues to be regularly adapted.  (Boublil and Schonberg loved it so much that they based Miss Saigon on the tale, and the inspiration of Puccini’s music is unmistakeable in Les Miserables.)

When a story is so well known, there is a tendency to play the end before it happens. I’d have liked to see Act 1 directed with a greater sense of hope and love, rather than foreshadowing the tragic end. Her death isn’t what make’s us cry, it’s her loss of hope.

Nicole Youl, nonetheless, shines as Cio-Cio-San (Madama Butterfly), playing her with the belief that she can and will fly. Vocally and emotionally she paces her performance perfectly; holding back to tame the melodrama, while letting the emotion flow to its extremes when needed. She is strongly supported by Sally-Ann Russell as her maid Suzuki. The relationship of these two sustains and drives the drama of Act 2.

The design by Peter England and Robert Bryan is an example of how opulence and simplicity can blend to create something outstanding. Surrounded by water and sliding screens, the wooden stage represents home, afar and isolation. Floating candles, brightly coloured kimonos and flickering stars create a beauty and grandness that transports the story out of the everyday into the universal. However, it wasn’t designed for the State Theatre and the sight lines from the front rows miss much of the overall picture.  Choose seats at least half way back in the stalls or head to the balconies.

My only concern with the beautiful production is movement. I don’t expect opera performers to be dancers, but they can be choreographed to be less uncomfortable as they sweep across the vast stage. The movement of the chorus was particularly rigid and lacked character and purpose. The chorus role is minimal, but they are vital to for the drama and visual impact of Act 1. Last year I sat in the same theatre watching Robert Wilson direct a rehearsal of The Temptation of St Anthony.  He ensured that the most seemingly insignificant person on that stage knew how essential they were to the stage picture and choreographed their every move. This attention to detail turned a beautiful production into something exquisite.

Minor quibbles aside, this passionate production proves the vitality of opera, and I heard many opera subscribers declaring it the best Madama Butterfly that they had ever seen.

Finally, I have just heard about the sad and sudden passing of Richard Hickox. Hickox was the Music Director of Madama Butterfly, which continues to stand as a testament to his great talent.

This appeared on AussieTheatre.com

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