Culturally cringeworthy, sexually exploitative, and at times musically melodramatic, Madama Butterfly confusingly continues to be a staple of the operatic repertoire. Perhaps it is the simplicity of its storyline, the music's accessibility and the attraction to the “exotic” that have assisted in cultivating its legacy. Co-produced by Opera Hong Kong and the Slovene National Theatre Maribor, Pier Francesco Maestrini's production brings the work into the 21st century, at least visually, with a more modernised and digitally-stylised telling than their recent attempts with Norma and Carmen. The use of projected imagery functions as a backdrop, conveying the open seas rather than a bustling Nagasaki port, but elsewhere more effectively as a wash of chromatic illumination that envelopes the stage. 

The Wedding Ceremony
© Opera Hong Kong

The digital imagery develops its own narrative, navigating us through time and enhancing significant plot points. During the climactic scene, splotches of blood red were ‘splashed’ across the stage in quick succession, eventually thickening out to blanket the entire canvas in a visual representation of Butterfly's fated death. The transition between Acts 2 and 3 was equally moving, where Cio-Cio-san lay seemingly levitates on a raised bed, bathed in nightly hues while the Humming Chorus took us through to morning.

Puccini's opera is unusual in that the traditional overture is absent, instead launching into more prompt action with a depiction of a thriving seaport in fin de siècle Nagasaki. The Hong Kong Philharmonic were a strong and reliable presence throughout, ably conducted with physical conviction and arresting confidence by Yves Abel. Choosing to work without a baton, he fashioned a formidable figure for both stage and pit, demonstrating his passion with sweeping emotional gestures for moments of grandeur and pointed precision for those more tender.

Mykhailo Malafii (Pinkerton) and Sae-Kyung Rim (Cio-Cio-san)
© Opera Hong Kong

Also unusually, Puccini's male protagonist is only really a supporting player, completely absent during Act 2 and with minimal vocal input in Act 3. The Ukrainian tenor Mykhailo Malafii’s Pinkerton (alternating with Khachatur Badalyan) failed to establish a meaningful characterisation from the start, which hindered an effective and believable connection with Cio-Cio-san herself. Whilst Malafii has a fine range with a pleasing middle register, he lacked the projection in his upper voice to provide his character with the strength it deserves. This was apparent in the love duet that closes Act 1, where the voices were incompatible, and unfortunately their decision not to extend their final notes to cease this important emotional highpoint was a disappointment.

Mykhailo Malafii (Pinkerton) and Sae-Kyung Rim (Cio-Cio-san)
© Opera Hong Kong

Sae-Kyung Rim’s Butterfly (alternating with Bing Bing Wang) is vocally strong and emoted with greater success. She began with a confident presence, but may well consider a more meek beginning, befitting of her character’s youth. The Korean’s rendition of “Un bel dì vedremo” was heartfelt, if somewhat clinical; her phrases were often clipped and not always organic in their execution. Her upper tessitura does demand attention, however, and the clarity in her bottom register projects with minimal effort. 

Sae-Kyung Rim (Cio-Cio-san)
© Opera Hong Kong

The chorus has a peripheral role in this opera, but the purity of sound from the cast of geishas and Luca Dall'Alpi's colourful array of costumes helped to transport us back to this bygone era. In the line up of supporting players, Marcin Bronikowski’s Sharpless captured the character's solemnity with his rich, warm baritone, whereas Chen Yong’s Goro was raspy at times and his physicality seemed out of place. Yayoi Toriki’s Suzuki provided emotional support to Butterfly, but was not always up to the challenges that the role offered.

Despite its naiveté, Madama Butterfly will probably continue to be part of operatic discussion. It is important that production teams address its flaws in innovative ways, as we move towards greater globalisation and a better understanding of cultural sensitivities. 

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