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Audiences' last chance to see this beloved production may just prove irresistible

Puccini’s Madama Butterfly might be the pinnacle of Japonisme, the intense but short-lived fetish of all things Japanese that swamped the West at the turn of the 20th century. Easy to dismiss these days as flat-out cultural appropriation, it none the less influenced major artists like Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Butterfly is possibly the perfect embodiment of the tragic impulse inherent in this fetish. She dies as a rebuke and a resolution of Western ideals of the Orient, simultaneously the victim and agent of a cultural fantasy that can only end in her destruction. That historically it would culminate in the blatant horrors of war seems sadly preordained.

The plot is so pared it almost functions as pure symbolism. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton [James Egglestone] comes to Japan as an American Naval Officer, and takes for his “wife” the rather spotless geisha Cio-Cio San [Hiromi Omura]. He’s in party mode, but she’s deadly serious. When he abandons her, eventually returning with an American wife [Katherine Wiles], she kills herself in order to maintain her honour.

The opera opens with a discussion of architecture, as Pinkerton explores the house he has just taken a hundred-year lease on. The delights of opening and closing screens seems to hint at the darker purpose to come, as he negotiates nuptials to the fifteen year-old Ciao-Ciao San with marriage broker Goro [Graeme Macfarlane]. The US consul to Nagasaki, Sharpless [the formidable and sympathetic Michael Honeyman] warns Pinkerton that Butterfly will hold fast to this farcical ceremony, and she doesn’t disappoint.

Cultural imperialism acts like a deadly riptide under the calm surfaces of the house’s water features in Madama Butterfly. Moffatt Oxenbould’s production doesn’t strain for emphasis on this point, allowing the horror of Pinkerton’s actions to remain as much a personal failing as a wider political allegory. Egglestone is fine in the role, although vocally stronger and dramatically richer as his bravado slips late in the second act.

Of course, the star of the evening is Omura, and she dazzles in the part, never cloying or abject, even when she is utterly defeated. Her voice is wondrous, and she dominates the massive space in moments of stillness as much as moments of nervous tension. Sian Pendry is also magnificent as her prescient servant Suzuki.

The single-set design, by Peter England and Russell Cohen, stacks up after so many years of wear and tear, although the moments when the set opens out to reveal the stars and moon seem a little sentimental now, skirting the edge of kitsch. The lighting design [Robert Bryan] is magnificent, so attuned to the shifting moods it feels like an extension of the music.

Orchestra Victoria, under the baton of Guillaume Tourniaire, is in lovely form, especially in the more languorous second act. There is delicacy and confidence in the pacing, and the iconic “humming chorus” is gloriously restrained and moving.

This is the last time audiences can see the most successful production in Opera Australia’s history. It’s certainly worth revisiting for the well-versed and jaded, but it’s also the perfect entry point for the uninitiated. Expansive and intimate, powerful and almost impossibly beautiful, the downfall of Madama Butterfly makes for an exquisite evening in the theatre. 

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By Tim Byrne   |  

Madama Butterfly details

State Theatre
100 St Kilda Rd, Melbourne 3004

Telephone 1300 182 183

Nearby Stations: Flinders Street

Price $57.00 to $250.00

Date 04 May 2015-30 May 2015

Open Various

Director: Moffatt Oxenbould

Cast: Hiromi Omura, James Egglestone, Sian Pendry, Barry Ryan, Michael Honeyman, Graeme Macfarlane, Jud Arthur, Samuel Dundas

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