NBR NZ Opera’s “Butterfly” – traditional and triumphant

NBR New Zealand Opera presents –

Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly

Cast: Antoinette Halloran (Cio-Cio-San) / Lucy Schaufer (Suzuki) / Piero Pretti (Pinkerton)

Peter Savidge (Sharpless) / James Rodgers (Goro) / Richard Green (The Bonze)

Jared Holt (Yamadori) / Bianca Andrew (Kate Pinkerton) / Kieran Rayner  (Commissioner)

Edward Laurenson (Registrar) / Lesley Graham (Cio-Cio-San’s mother)

Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus

Orchestra Wellington

Conductor : Thomas Ringborg

Chorus Master: Michael Vinten

Director: Kate Cherry

St.James Theatre, Wellington

Saturday 11th May, 2013

This “Butterfly” has already flittered, swayed, dipped and floated her way down the island from most of the way up north – so quite a few people will by now have seen and heard her. I’ll go out on a traditionalist limb and declare that most of these people, I feel certain, would have been pleased to find her heart-rending story more-or-less conventionally staged and costumed, though with enough creativity and flair to make something uniquely beautiful and memorable.

How refreshing to be able to concentrate for once upon the musical aspects of a standard repertoire opera, instead of having to fight one’s way through some hot-shot director’s quirkily modernist and sometimes fatally intrusive “production take” on the well-known story (“Anything to stop it being done straight!” as comedian Michael Flanders says at one point in his and Donald Swann’s legendary revue “At the Drop of a Hat”, regarding a musical adaptation of a seventeenth century novel.)

Before the bright things of the revisionist world begin casting their barbed spears in my direction, I must emphasize that I’m not against the idea of taking a new look at any such performance-art-form, provided that its impulse to do thus comes from inner conviction on the part of those responsible, not merely a desire to be superficially “trendy” or “fashionable”. Then, of course, the conviction has to be intelligently thought through and applied, at the very least as coherently as the work would have been wrought by its original creator.

Apart from one or two brief and unnecessarily gratuitous touches, I thought, for example, the recent NBR NZ Opera production of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” was a brilliantly successful rethink of the work’s original setting. As I believe many people would also, I would nevertheless be eminently satisfied with seeing the work staged as the composer himself would have had it presented. With all  the recent emphasis in the music world on “authentic performance” it’s interesting that there isn’t a parallel set of impulses to try and recreate original stage settings as faithfully as possible as well – in fact, especially in the case of baroque opera, there’s sometimes a kind of schizophrenic dislocation between what happens in the orchestral pit as opposed to the goings-on up on the stage!

It will be obvious by now to anybody reading this review that I loved this production of “Butterfly” – its predictable aspects concerning the Japanese setting somehow had a freshness which transcended any feeling of routine or tired tradition, as if the “obvious” had been completely rethought, and emerged as something original. As an example of this, I liked the uses of the sliding doors to create different spaces and ambiences, with not a single movement unmotivated by text or music.

With a set at once fixed and yet extremely fluid, lighting had an enormous part to play in the creation of a distinctive ambience, and there was a similar sense of the “expected” still being able to take us by surprise. Butterfly’s Act One entrance was suffused with light (firstly through screens, and then spilling gloriously through the opened spaces) – as it should, the music giving ample demonstration of what’s required at this point – but our senses were suitably enraptured by the whole sequence in a way that joined us with the onstage spectators witnessing this Venus-like arrival.

The Act One love-duet took us to the opposite end of the lighting spectrum, with suspended, descending lamps both literally and metaphorically signifying the onset of the mysteries of night and the consummation of ardent expressions of love at the scene’s end – again, a beautiful, uncontrived effect. In the Humming Chorus, lamps were this time carried by the watchers, and extinguished one by one, the effect of “going into the night” tellingly contrasted  with the wide-wake steadfastness of Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly), waiting for her lover, Pinkerton.

In the context of such “charged” naturalness throughout, the costumes were of a piece with the sun’s radiance and the night’s gentleness. The Japanese/European contrast was necessarily marked, the Americans’ naval uniforms and the woman’s elegant western garb at the end having a plain, almost functional beauty which contrasted with the colourful oriental styles and hues worn by the Japanese characters.

With so many visual and functional felicities in play, the stage was, as it were, beautifully set for the singers and orchestral musicians to contribute their particular magic. Happily, they responded with a wholeheartedness that I felt matched the inspiration of the work’s creators, here brought out by astute, sensitive direction. Kate Cherry and her assistant Jacqueline Coats, together with stage and lighting designers Christina Smith and Matt Scott had, I thought, between them captured a kind of essence of universal human emotion, exotically but subtly flavoured, so as to retain our audience-connections with the situations of the characters.

First to impress (and weakening my resolve to castigate the NBRNZ operatic powers-that-be for casting so many non-New Zealanders in major roles) was the engagingly-acted and superbly-sung Goro (the marriage-broker), of Wellingtonian James Benjamin Rodgers, his demeanor capturing the bumptious servitude of the character to the full and his voice impressively clear and communicative at all times. His dynamic of interaction with Butterfly’s maid, Suzuki, was flecked with delightful self-righteous impulses tempered with proper “knowing-one’s-place” decorum; and American mezzo Lucy Schaufer’s Suzuki gave as good as she got. Elsewhere Schaufer’s attendance upon her mistress, Cio-Cio-San, took her character to another expressive level, beautifully mirroring Butterfly’s hopes and fears throughout.

Overshadowed by the loquacious Goro when he first enters, Italian tenor Piero Pretti as Lieutenant Pinkerton nevertheless quietly and confidently eased his character’s presence into the scenario, from the beginning his manner hinting at a none-too-subtle disdain of things Japanese. Then with the entrance of his friend, the American consul Sharpless (sung by English baritone, Peter Savidge), both tenor and baritone had to open their respective vocal throttles, partly to cope with an accompanying orchestral fabric which I thought was too fulsome and insistent in many places throughout the scene. Thankfully, Swedish conductor Tobias Ringborg thereafter seemed to pick up on the balances between singers and orchestra more surely, getting more clarity and coherence from the stage as a result, and some beautifully sensitive work from the pit.

I thought Piero Pretti a strong, heroic-sounding Pinkerton, sounding as though he had to push his tones over the orchestral fabric during those first exchanges with Sharpless, but thereafter responding to Butterfly upon her entrance, and during the love duet, with great tenderness and ardour. As Sharpless, Peter Savidge’s baritone also struggled to make his words be heard during his first scene, and similarly benefitted from the more diaphanous orchestral textures accompanying Cio-Cio-San’s entrance. Later, in Act Two, he again needed to be more incisive at first, but then settled and deepened his voice in time for a well-acted, extremely touching letter-reading scene with Butterfly.

And so to the heroine – Antoinette Halloran was the second Australian soprano I had seen and heard sing the role of Cio-Cio-San in Wellington (Rosamund Illing was the first, back in 1990), and like her distinguished predecessor she didn’t disappoint. Butterfly’s approach and entrance, as previously mentioned, was here a wonderful moment, the character’s appearance personifying both radiance and simple beauty, aided and abetted by a profusion of bright chorus colours and sunlit tones. Like many an operatic Butterfly, Halloran didn’t look particularly Oriental, but she nevertheless presented a believable portrayal of an exotic young girl on the brink of womanhood, readily and innocently putting her trust in a man she hardly knew, but had nevertheless fallen in love with.

Perhaps her voice wasn’t always ideally steady when under vocal pressure, though she delivered the well-known “Un bel di” with just the right amount of growing intensity towards a powerful, and properly fraught conclusion. Just once I felt her acting more workmanlike than inspired (her response to the Bonze, her uncle’s angry public condemnation of her marriage) – but for the rest of the time I thought it a beautifully-wrought and deeply touching portrayal. Among a number of enduring impressions of Halloran’s Butterfly, my most vivid is of her whole person’s transfigured intensity during her all-night vigil, throughout both the Humming Chorus and the orchestral prelude to the final scene, waiting for Pinkerton’s return.

Solid, reliable work from both the chorus and singers in smaller roles rounded out the picture – though of the latter only Bianca Andrew in her brief appearance as Pinkerton’s American wife, Kate, seemed entirely at one with her character, her poised elegance barely disguising her awareness of Butterfly’s situation. And, mention must be made of Butterfly’s child Sorrow, engagingly and winsomely played by Finn Bowden.

Apart from that first-Act sequence during which I thought the orchestral playing a couple of notches too insistent and unvaried against the tones of Pinkerton and Sharpless, conductor Tobias Ringborg and the Orchestra Wellington gave us both sensitive and spirited playing, illuminating the score’s most telling moments with tones ranging from finely-crafted diaphanous texturings to deep, louring portents of the ever-resonating tragedy. The playing fully realized the composer’s fascination with and use of exotic colour and piquant harmonies, both through individual instrumentalists’ skills and finely-judged ensemble work – a “moments per minute” scenario of continuing delight.

I thought this production brilliantly (and triumphantly!) gave the lie to the idea that today’s audiences require opera to be “updated” (I use the word euphemistically) in order to be able to connect with the stories, themes and characters. This was something “whole”, its power and impact the result not of outward titillation but inner conviction.


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