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Published July 27, 2019

Often when leaving the theatre, the magic of the performance you have seen fades away and you look at it in a more rational way (the ‘light of day’ impact so to speak). You become disillusioned by the splendor and form your critical, rational opinion – but in my critical, rational opinion, the magic and splendor of this production of Madama Butterfly cannot be disillusioned. A confronting and fantastical dystopian Japan awaits you in Opera Australia’s newest production of Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 masterwork Madama Butterfly, where director Graeme Murphy has taken Butterfly far away from Opera Australia’s usual field of play and turned it on its head, exploring themes of freedom, bondage, imagination and self-deception in a powerful techno-gothic fever-dream that left every person in the auditorium mesmerised. 

An operatic staple, Madama Butterfly tells the story of Cio-Cio-San (Mariana Hong), a young Japanese woman who weds and subsequently falls in love with an American lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton (Andeka Gorrotxategi). After Pinkerton abandons his wife in Japan to seek an ‘real American wife’, Cio-Cio-San disillusions herself with the hope that one day her husband will one day return. Having remarried, Pinkerton returns three years later after finding out that a distraught Cio-Cio-San has given birth to his son. Cio-Cio-San, initially thrilled with the return of her husband, is driven into a deep depression upon discovering he has wed an American woman, and kills herself with the same blade that her father used to commit seppuku. Opera has a stereotype for tragedy, and Madama Butterfly fulfills this stereotype, clearly.

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Madama Butterfly designs on display.
Photo © Prudence Upton

Between Michael Scott-Mitchell’s bold designs (driven by both absences of and injections of colour), Jennifer Irwin’s remarkable and unique costumes, and Damien Cooper’s eerie lighting, Graeme Murphy’s vision and exploration of the piece was brought to life in spectacular fashion. This was a showcasing of a far more sophisticated use of technologies than Opera Australia experimented with in Aida last year. Despite the protest of one particularly vocal woman behind me that the development of theatrical technologies takes away from the beauty of the material and was at times overwhelming during this production (and admittedly one particular spiral effect left me feeling quite motion sick and distracted), I believe that this is a glimpse into the bright future theatrical design still has as we move rapidly beyond the days of charmless and clunky ‘classical’ sets.

Before seeing this production, I had forgotten what it truly was to be a skilled actor in the world of opera – until Mariana Hong appeared on stage in the titular role. Moving and dynamic in her presentation of the character, Hong was a force to be reckoned with as the rapidly deteriorating and refreshingly mature, as opposed to the classically ‘simple’, Cio-Cio-San. But it was in the second half that she really shone, as exemplified with her rendition of the infamously difficult yet beautiful Un Bel Di Vedremo, where she managed to decorate each vocal line with a splendor and delicate technical acting skill unsurpassed by any rendition of the iconic aria that I have experienced to date.

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Madama Butterfly scene – visually and musically stunning.
Photo © Prudence Upton

Sian Sharp’s Suzuki, José Carbó’s Sharpless and Virgilio Marino as Goro were also standouts in this production with their crisp and perfect vocals. They also ended up carrying more than their load as actors to pick up the slack left by a rather wooden – although vocally pleasing – Andeka Gorrotxategi  as B.F. Pinkerton. Things were not all bad with Gorrotxategi – he made up for his lack of connection with his character in the musical highlight of the evening for me: the Act 3 trio as sung by Sharp, Carbo, and Gorrotxategi.

The Opera Australia chorus were also delightful to watch, and brought a delicate grace and ensemble unification doing a great justice to Coro A Bocca Chiusa. And it would be unjust of me not to mention the Opera Australia Orchestra led by Nicholas Milton, who performed Puccini’s sweeping score to the note (and in my opinion simply could not be faulted in any way).

Sexy, scary and spectacular – Madama Butterfly is a triumph of performance, design and musical mastery.

Madama Butterfly is currently playing at the Sydney Opera House until August 10th. Buy tickets here.

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