Moffatt Oxenbould’s 1997 production of Madama Butterfly is one of those shows Opera Australia wheels back out every few years for a new season with a new cast and, hopefully, new audiences. But they don’t do it without good reason. It’s a production that typifies what Opera Australia has been about over the past two decades. It’s a simple, truthful, stylish staging of one of the finest operas ever written with just a little bit of innovation and quirky creativity thrown in.
This time around, it has a unique and authentic twist with Japanese soprano Hiromi Omura as Cio-Cio-San (the Butterfly herself) and the orchestra under Ryusuke Numajiri’s baton. The whole show is lifted by these two, with Omura singing gloriously and Numajiri pushing one of Puccini’s finest scores to beautiful emotional highs. Omura is a stunning Cio-Cio-San, capturing her journey from 15-year-old geisha bride to mother and desperate, jilted lover. Her performance of the opera’s most famous aria, Un bel di drew thunderous applause on opening night.
James Egglestone is a fine Pinkerton, with bright, technically proficient singing. But he never seems to quite match the emotional heights of those around him and seems a little hesitant, particularly in the first act. The two lovers are supported by the best Opera Australia has to offer with Dominica Matthews in a heartbreaking turn as Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San’s faithful maid and Andrew Moran, who stepped in to play Sharpless with less than a day’s notice when Opera Australia stalwart Michael Lewis became ill. Jud Arthur also has big impact with his little stage time as The Bonze.
The sets and costumes by Peter England and Russell Cohen are amongst the best you’ll ever see on an opera stage. They’re simple and elegant with big splashes of colour, drawing inspiration from Japanese minimalism. The action unfolds atop a timber platform surrounded by a pond and rolling shutters that filter light into the space. The effect is stunning, assisted by Robert Bryan’s gorgeous lighting design.
What’s really wonderful about this production is how comfortable Oxenbould is to let the score and the story unfold by itself. It’s masterful direction, with some unique touches, but he knows when to figuratively ‘shut up’ as a director and let the score speak for itself. For example, in the famous ‘humming chorus’, all action ceases on the stage while the audience listens to the stunning voices of the Opera Australia chorus and the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra. It’s magnificent work by a director who truly understands opera and it’s a production that deserves to be seen again and again.