Melbourne Opera: Madame Butterfly

While sitting in the foyer of the Athenaeum, waiting for the opening of Melbourne Opera’s production of Puccini’s much-loved  Madame Butterfly, an orchestra member strolled by and casually announced that none of the toilets were working.  As people happily took their drinks inside and there was no further announcement, I wondered, as the evening wore on, whether the lack of spontaneous clapping for individual performances of note was due to the fact that they may have felt nervous about moving too much, while at the end of the whole performance, when relief must have been in sight, there was thunderous applause!

Melbourne Opera's Madame Butterfly 2014
Photo by Robin Halls

On the other hand, maybe the apparent lack of generous emoting was due to hardly being able to hear or understand a word the singers were desperately trying to project over a far too enthusiastic and loud orchestra – and I was in the third row of the dress circle not the third row of the stalls, which must have been almost painful.

The set design was practicable and worked well but, in the first act, there may have been a problem with the lighting as it seemed only capable of being full on in the main body of the stage but lost on its main performer, the extremely talented Antoinette Halloran, unless she was down stage left.

I was similarly distracted, as I have been before with this company, by the choice of costume, which made Halloran appear more like a matronly woman than the 16-year-old geisha Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly).  While she may not need to have been dressed as a geisha, her dress could have been more traditional instead of gaping as she walked to reveal a short, different coloured skirt underneath and a pair of white socks. And while the large cast of extras made an attractive scene of women with appropriate costumes and colourful umbrellas, the men need also to be dressed in Japanese attire and to walk accordingly.

Jason Wasley, as Pinkerton, certainly portrayed himself admirably as an American cad but seemed awkward in the role until there was an opportunity to deliver more emotion in his duet with Cio-Cio-San and I finally heard the lovely line “all around us is silence” because the orchestra had backed off. While it is absolute luxury to have a full orchestra in the pit, a balance has to be struck.

Perhaps the performers also might sacrifice the ambition for vocal perfection. I found particularly the intense vibrato in Halloran’s top register didn’t impart the emotion of the story as clearly as her lower registers.

Roger Howell as Sharpless, the US Consul, and Caroline Vercoe as Suzuki, Butterfly’s servant, demonstrated this skill to perfection and deserved the strong applause they received at the end. I managed to hear almost every word they said as convincing actors and accomplished singers.

Unfortunately, I feel I must end this review with a sincere hope that there will be some revision of the end scene, which I have never seen like this in any other performance of Madame Butterfly. It seemed clumsy but ridiculous in view of what it was portraying and took away from a performance to be proud of.

Madame Butterfly will also be performed at the Alexander Theatre, Monash University on 3 May.

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