So, it’s no secret I’m no opera buff, but I do love a good yarn. And Madam Butterfly is just that. An ageless love story – girl meets boy, boy marries in haste and lust, then runs off with someone else -give or take a few salacious details in between.
However, director Graeme Murphy’s production of Madama Butterfly elevates that simple story into an event, catapulting Puccini’s century-old Butterfly straight into the 21st Century. There are surprises at every turn, as fascinating in fact as watching the metamorphous of an actual butterfly. We recognise the familiar shape emerging from the chrysalis, but not until it spreads its wings and flies does the beauty and sheer magnitude stun us.
Cio Cio San (Sae-Kyung Rim) is the Japanese beauty who captures the attention of American naval officer Pinkerton (Diego Torre). Besotted by the former geisha’s exoticism he marries her on sight, admitting it’s a fanciful whim until he marries a ‘real wife, a wife from America’. For San however it’s very different. She envisages a more promising future with her American hero, a more modern and liberating life. He leaves, she waits. And waits. It doesn’t end well.
Parking the performance of the traditional, flesh and blood, stars for just a moment, Opera Australia’s groundbreaking digital technologies tend to steal the show, if at times a little too much. Ten seven-metre tall LED screens create shifting and swirling backdrops, including towering robotic servants with whom the singers interact, to provide an arresting and compelling interpretation of the drama enacted out on stage.
The moment the curtain rises you are thrust into the symbolism as a web of red velvet rope drops down featuring a woman representing San trapped in the middle. While the set (Michael Scott-Mitchell) is basic, a revolving central platform built on menacing blades hinting to the reality of constraint, it’s the constantly shifting backdrop moving seamlessly to reflect angst and yearning, love and hope, which carries the story. From stark black and white projections mirroring the humdrum of domestic life, to dazzling floating clouds in a brilliant blue sky, to the star spangled banner, the dreams America represents, or dare I say, used to.
Meanwhile, the contemporary costume designs (Jennifer Irwin) span a range of ages, from sci-fi to spoof, from cartoon to cheesy, from flaunting to classic Chanel. While impressive, it was also jumbling and requiring too much thought and interpretation.
Rim is both bold and endearingly cautious, encapsulating every emotion as her mood swings from despondency to anticipation. However, during her powerful aria, Un Bel di, the balance between performance and imagery is dislocated as kanji characters float up the screen, only to nosedive at her climax. Too much unnecessary distraction.
It was clear from the beginning that Torre was underperforming, his voice giving out at pivotal moments, resulting in him being replaced through illness after interval by Thomas Strong. Strong stepped in with effortless ease, just a shame the call wasn’t made before the curtain rose.
Murphy’s contemporary look at Madama Butterfly is up for debate among serious opera aficionados and purists. Luckily, I am neither. I just want to be entertained. And I was.