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NZ Opera: Madame Butterfly - review

Apr 19, 2013 Theatre

Madame Butterfly
NZ Opera
ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre

April 18, 2013

There are fashions in violence – the Pulp Fiction gun held sideways came and went, and now, courtesy of Game of Thrones, there’s the sword slipped vertically inside the neck of the armour and run down into the body. Brutal. NZ Opera’s production of Madame Butterfly is up with that fashion, with its climactic act of violence propelling you quite unexpectedly into the horror of the moment.

Just one of its many great achievements. And yet, that moment aside, this is a story so unfashionable, it’s almost nonsensical to tell it today. Cio-Cio San (“Butterfly”) is a victim: a young geisha who falls in love with a callous rogue called Pinkerton from the US Navy, is betrayed by him, lives in denial about it and comes to a bad end. If you were inventing the story afresh, the whole point would be to add a healthy dose of revenge.

But that’s not how it goes in Madame Butterfly. Cio-Cio San is irredeemably a victim and the opera is a true classical tragedy: our heroine will lose because of a “flaw” in her own personality – she trusts the one she loves. And to make matters worse, the perpetrator of the moral crime against her doesn’t just get away scot free, he is rewarded, by being allowed to take their child from its mother.

This is, apparently, the world’s most frequently performed opera. The ruin of innocence is both an enduring and satisfyingly heartbreaking theme, but the bigger allure is surely Puccini’s glorious music.

It’s an opera to soak yourself in, drown yourself if you’re lucky. “One fine day”, when Cio-Cio sings of her hopes for a future with Pinkerton in America, is one of the greatest arias. The Humming Chorus, when she waits for morning and what she believes will be his return to her, is one of the most sublime choral moments in all opera. And the dramatic Act Three trio – when the three second-tier leads sing of their fears for Cio-Cio San – is a completely realised, breathtakingly beautiful harmonic triumph.

As for the production, two things stand out. The first is the singing. I don’t remember hearing a better soprano in this country than Antoinette Halloran in the title role. She was a very fine Mimi in La Boheme five years ago, but her voice is richer, stronger and clearer now. She sits you up straight in the piercing climaxes, gives you goosebumps in the quiet moments.

Supporting her, the Italian tenor Piero Pretti as the scoundrel Pinkerton possesses a bell-like clarity; while the baritone Peter Savidge as Pinkerton’s ineffectual conscience, the consul Sharpless, combines lightness with intensity – and that’s very rare for his vocal range. He’s terrific, and so is Lucy Schaufer, who sings one of the loveliest mezzo-soprano roles as Cio-Cio San’s servant Suzuki.

The second is the staging. Director Kate Cherry has her cast doing very little, and it’s utterly compelling. On a rigidly geometric set representing Cio-Cio San’s house on the hill, with sliding Japanese panels used to great effect, the humans move simply, arranging themselves into graceful compositions and then breaking free, always keeping you lost in the music.

If you’re an old fan of Butterfly, you’ll want to get reacquainted and you will not be disappointed. If you’re new to opera and hoping for seduction, this is the one.

To April 28. The Wellington season runs May 11 – 18.

Photo: Neil Mackenzie


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