In what has been a highly successful first year for Artistic Director Stuart Maunder, State Opera South Australia has chosen to end the season with a thematically appropriate double header in Gilbert & Sullivan’s cautionary comic if slightly off-colour The Mikado and Puccini’s greatest intimate tragedy Madama Butterfly. And both choices are rather timely given the current international political climate. However, whilst The Mikado seeks to update the milieu to a ‘bubble pink’ post-modern confection to make it easier for the contemporary audience to digest the unpalatable politics and cultural differences, with Puccini, it’s personal tragedy where the traditional idea of honour looms above all else.

Mariana Hong with Douglas McNicol and Angus Wood. Photograph @Soda Street Productions

With this production of Butterfly directed by Kate Cherry after highly successful runs in both New Zealand and Seattle, there exists a balance between the traditional mounting of this tale and Cio-Cio San’s personal tragedy viewed through the eyes of the post-feminist. In interviews, Cherry has told of her fascination for the faithful ‘wife’ awaiting the return of her spouse. Indeed, this was an idea that inspired Monteverdi (The Return of Ulysses). Add to this premise a well-chosen cast and production and Cherry presents a Butterfly that ranks amongst the finest I’ve witnessed.

Here is a production which holds together and convinces as firmly as the interlocking Japanese paper screens which underpin it. Add a tasteful range of kimono-styled gowns and such little yet highly effective touches as the gentle, floating showers of petals and the use of strident blood-red to emphasise the depth of passion as much as Cio-Cio San’s own demise, and here is an all-too-rare production to which the audience cannot remain indifferent or uninvolved. Puccini’s score makes the experience all the more passionate with his clever enveloping of western and eastern musical modes and methods.

Whilst any production of Madama Butterfly must succeed or fail by the abilities of its title character, in this ­– Mariana Hong’s first performance in Adelaide after many successful Opera Australia roles –  is the finest exponent that I’ve yet heard on the stage. But this is no mere solo task. The interaction between Hong (formerly known as Hyeseoung Kwon) with her servant Suzuki, played by Caitlin Cassidy, was heartfelt, and others were equally impressive in their roles. Familiar tenor Angus Wood proves to be a very fine exponent as the American sailor and cad, Pinkerton, as is Douglas McNicol as the older and wiser Sharpless. Other familiar troupe members Adam Goodburn, Pelham Andrews and Bethany Hill (as the manipulative Goro, the empathetic Commissioner and the American wife, Kate respectively) are a few examples of the generous and appropriate casting undertaken for this production. As always, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra provides highly sympathetic accompaniment, conducted by Tobias Ringborg, making his Australian debut and in what must be seen as a real coup for the company.

This is a production of Butterfly that tears at the heartstrings whilst providing a truly excellent cast – as fine as any other that you’re likely the encounter anywhere in this country. Here is one of those rare treats where it’s hard to find fault with anyone involved in such a fine, sympathetic operatic experience. This Butterfly is the perfect ticket for novice and opera specialist alike. Congratulations to Stuart Maunder and his company.

Madama Butterfly plays at the Festival Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre until November 23


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