Pale flesh bursts out of tangled red rope as prostrate businessmen writhe and reach for bodies suspended above the stage, veins of incandescent rope spiderwebbing across the walls. Cio-Cio-San descends from the ceiling, suspended by – trapped at the centre of – ropes that reach out like the wings of a butterfly. It’s clear from the opening bars of Puccini’s score that this production of Madama Butterfly by choreographer and director Graeme Murphy won’t be anything like Moffatt Oxenbould’s traditional Butterfly, which Opera Australia retired two years ago.
Opera Australia’s Madama Butterfly. Photo © Prudence Upton
Giacomo Puccini’s opera, which premiered in 1904 with a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, was based on an 1898 short story by American author John Luther Long, Madame Butterfly, which was in turn based on the 1887 French novel Madame Chrysanthème by Pierre Loti, and it tells the story of an American naval officer who takes a Japanese bride in Nagasaki only to ditch her for a ‘real American wife’ back home. With a score full of ‘Japanese’ influences – pentatonic scales and percussion colouring Puccini’s melodies – the opera depicts a Japan as Italian audiences might have imagined it at the turn of the century, and it has remained a hit on the strength of its heart-rendingly beautiful music and searing tragedy.
Opera is perhaps one of the few artforms left where companies can routinely get away with telling a story about Japanese culture and people without having a single Japanese person on the creative team, but some productions have sought to challenge the Orientalism of this piece, such as a recent Butterfly by Los Angeles company Pacific Opera Project in which the Japanese characters were sung, in Japanese, by Japanese singers (the Cio-Cio-San was Japanese-Australian soprano Janet Todd) and the American roles were sung in English.
Murphy’s new production, however, takes a similar line to his 1990 Turandot in that it deliberately conjures a fantasy Japan (in this case a grimy, futuristic dystopia) but it doesn’t so much challenge the work’s Orientalism as it does update its aesthetic, drawing on contemporary Western fascinations with Japan, from Japanese bondage to kawaii girls.
Making use of Opera Australia’s new digital set – the 10 LED screens employed here with far more sophistication than in their debut in Aida last year – and a brutal looking dais at the centre of a double revolve (set designed by Michael Scott-Mitchell), Murphy opens the action in a bondage club, Cio-Cio-San reaching the floor only to collapse into the arms of Pinkerton, who is soon in discussions with the sleazy procurer Goro about getting set up with a new house and wife.
Karah Son in Opera Australia’s Madama Butterfly. Photo © Prudence Upton
For all the glitz of the digital screens (video design by Sean Nieuwenhuis) and wild costuming (Jennifer Irwin drawing on everything from burlesque to sci-fi) some of the simplest touches are the most wonderful: white squares on black create a bleak high-rise cityscape before smoothly closing in to evoke the sliding screens of Pinkterton’s apartment, or lighting (Damien Cooper) mottled through a scrim. There is something of a surfeit of ideas – with so many effects at your fingertips it must be tempting to use them all – and motifs often appear once never to be seen again, but overall it’s stunning to watch it all unfold.
With so much going on visually – you’ll certainly never be bored – the first act doesn’t gain much emotional traction, and it’s not until the second, driven by South Korean soprano Karah Son’s performance as Cio-Cio-San, that the piece starts to move you. A seasoned Butterfly – she made her OA debut in the role in 2017 – she manages to give us a worldly and complex reading, even while the character’s origins as the star performer in a bondage club don’t quite track with her inherent naivety. She brings a lush soprano to the role and her Un bel dì vedremo packs an incredible punch, Japanese typography blooming around her only to collapse into bone-like piles as she reaches her hair-raising final high note. Her final act is full of emotional power, and the moment when her child cries out to her is heart-breaking.
Karah Son and Sian Sharp in Opera Australia’s Madama Butterfly. Photo © Prudence Upton
Sian Sharp (née Pendry) brings a marvellous swagger to Suzuki, and while the tough, street-smart reading seems to collapse into a more traditional interpretation in the final act (grief at Cio-Cio-San’s fate repeatedly bringing her to her knees), Sharp has loads of vocal presence and plenty of heart – her Flower Duet with Son, the pair spray-painting colour into their drab surroundings, is an absolute highlight.
A familiar face in recent OA productions, Spanish tenor Andeka Gorrotxategi brought a burnished tone to his blithe Pinkerton, with touches of incipient violence and control ever-present in his love for Butterfly, before giving us genuine – if pathetically cowardly – remorse in the final act.
Andeka Gorrotxategi and Karah Son in Opera Australia’s Madama Butterfly. Photo © Prudence Upton
Australian-Italian tenor Virgilio Marino is menacing – and creepily ever-present – as an ashen-faced, dreadlocked Goro, though vocally he felt underpowered at times on opening night, while Michael Honeyman fills the theatre with his resonant baritone as Pinkerton’s clean-cut but ultimately impotent voice of reason, Sharpless. Russian-born bass Gennadi Dubinsky makes for a particularly mad Bonze, bearing a huge origami paper crane on his back. Christopher Hillier’s Yamadori is as gaudily gold-clad as Puccini’s music for him.
The Opera Australia chorus is in fine form, the offstage ‘Humming Chorus’ – in this case transformed into a nightmare ballet sequence, giving us Cio-Cio-San’s tormented inner world as she waits for Pinkterton’s return – is, as ever, exquisite. The Opera Australia Orchestra, under Massimo Zanetti, gives the score a lively reading more than equal to Murphy’s dizzying visuals, with the winds in the opening of the second act a highlight.
Graeme Murphy’s new production is striking – a visual feast – but with so many ideas, many fascinating, thrown into the mix and little to tie them all together (despite all the rope imagery), it tends to feel chaotic and unfocussed. Son’s Butterfly, however, is worth the price of admission alone.
Opera Australia’s Madama Butterfly is at the Sydney Opera House until August 10