Verdi (courtesy of Rigoletto, La Traviata, Aida et al) and Puccini (courtesy of Turandot, La Boheme, Tosca et al) being the dons of Italian opera, and Madama Butterfly containing one of Puccini’s most exquisite and popular arias, is reason enough for noobs to seek out Opera Australia’s remount of Moffat Oxenbould’s much-beloved production. And as stalwart opera-goer Judith informed me during the interval, Puccini’s music and the chance to hear new principals in the parts is what keeps her coming back time and time again (“I cried at the end of the first act tonight,” she freely admits).
Taking the opening night honours for the title role was Japanese soprano Hiromi Omura (who will share the role for this short 12-performance season with Antoinette Halloran) opposite young tenor James Egglestone as the callous US Naval Officer B.F. Pinkerton, and Japanese conductor Ryusuke Numajiri making his Australian debut on the podium. It was Andrew Moran, however, stepping into the role of chivalrous US consul Sharpless at the last moment due to illness, who really impressed.
Madama Butterfly (later ripped off to great effect in the blockbuster musical Miss Saigon) is one of the great operatic tragedies, about a young, innocent geisha who falls in love with and marries a caddish American naval officer, who shortly afterwards sails away again, promising to return. Three years later he does indeed return, but with a young American wife – only to find his Butterfly impoverished and pining for her faithless husband. The key moments to look out for are the long, romantic duet at the end of the first act, the light-as-a-feather ‘Humming Chorus’, and Butterfly’s heartbreaking aria ‘One Beautiful Day’, one of the most famous works in the soprano repertoire (and met on opening night with an eruption of rapturous applause).
The production is simply but stunningly staged, with a set framed by a mote of water and paper-screen walls that are raised and lowered to dramatise certain entrances in the style of traditional Japanese ‘No’ theatre, and giving the impression of the figurative dolls house or magic box that Butterfly becomes trapped in. Against this staid backdrop, the explosions of coloured-silk kimonos take centre stage, without ever upstaging the superb performances. This production definitely falls into the ‘crowdpleaser’ box in Opera Australia’s 2012 program.