Moffatt Oxenbould’s much-loved production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly has served Opera Australia well. Since it premiered in 1997, it has been performed over 150 times – more than any other production in the company’s repertoire. But this final two-week season at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre marks its farewell.

Twenty years on, it still looks beautiful but in the wake of the stunning, contemporary, tougher and far more original production that Àlex Ollé and his team from Spanish theatre company La Fura dels Baus staged for OA’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour in 2014, Oxenbould’s production now feels a bit dated and safe.

Sian Pendry and Karah Son in Madama Butterfly. Photograph © Prudence Upton

Visually it still has plenty to offer and the larger Capitol Theatre stage gives it more room to breathe than the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House where it was last seen in 2015. The elegant set by Peter England and Russell Cohen with its wooden platform surrounded by water, and sliding panels to evoke the house that Pinkerton rents for his young Geisha bride Cio-Cio-San (or Butterfly), has clean lines and a simple beauty, while the moat is an evocative metaphor for the isolation of both Cio-Cio-San and Japan at that time.

Into this tranquil space comes a blaze of colour through the sumptuous costuming – flowing garments and kimonos in gorgeous hues for Cio-Cio-San and her family, a head-to-toe red look for Cio-Cio-San’s fierce uncle The Bonze, and a witty East-meets-West outfit, teaming bowler hat, waistcoat and tailcoat with wild, silken, Japanese-inspired pants, for the the opportunistic marriage broker Goro. It’s cleverly conceived by Oxenbould and his design team as an exotic, seductive world as seen through Pinkerton’s eyes.

The moment when the starry night sky and moon is revealed for the love duet between Pinkerton and Butterfly at the end of Act I is still wonderfully effective, as are the floating candles and the strewn flowers and falling petals for the Flower Duet in Act II. But for all its visual beauty it took a fair amount of time on opening night before the production began to transport you emotionally.

Sian Pendry, Aidan as Sorrow and Karah Son. Photograph © Prudence Upton

South Korean soprano Karah Son is making her Australian debut as Cio-Cio-San – a role she has played in Germany, Italy and at Glyndebourne Festival Opera. Though she has a strong voice across her register, the sweet spot during Act I was in her middle range, with some vibrato in her top notes that soared without really thrilling. But in Act II, her voice warmed and became more imbued with emotion, particularly in the opera’s most famous aria Un bel dì (One fine day) and the Flower Duet, beautifully sung with Sian Pendry as Suzuki. It is impossible not to be moved by the final act, and Son certainly found the vulnerability and touching innocence of Cio-Cio-San in the opera’s tragic conclusion in a way that she hadn’t earlier.

Mexican-born Australian-based tenor Diego Torre is a convincingly cavalier, callow Pinkerton bringing his lovely, warm, Italianate tenor to the role in a vocally and dramatically impressive performance. Sian Pendry is excellent as as Cio-Cio-San’s servant Suzuki (reprising the role she played in 2015), her mezzo clear, firm and lush, her diction impeccable and her acting subtle yet beautifully detailed.

Diego Torre and Graeme Macfarlane. Photograph © Prudence Upton

Barry Ryan, brings dignity, compassion and a powerful baritone to the role of Sharpless, the decent United States Consul who sees the situation between Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San all too clearly. Returning to the role of Goro, the wheedling marriage broker, Graeme Macfarlane is also in fine form. Jane Ede is a dignified Kate Pinkerton, though the other minor roles had less impact vocally and dramatically than previous casts.

Though it took a bit of time to get there, by the opera’s end, we were finally swept up emotionally in the tragic tale. But Opera Australia’s decision to retire the production and look at the opera anew is probably a good one.

Opera Australia’s Madama Butterfly plays at the Capitol Theatre until November 4.


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