Director Kate Cherry, designer Christina Smith, and lighting designer Matt Scott have brought to life this New Zealand Opera staging, which comes to Adelaide via Seattle Opera, to create a confrontational production of Madama Butterfly for the State Opera of South Australia. Cherry’s shōji panels on a low platform sets were simple and expressive, Scott’s lighting capturing the singers and creating a profoundly effective atmosphere, while Smith’s European concept of Japanese costumes added colour.

Mariana Hong (Cio-Cio-San) © Soda Street Productions
Mariana Hong (Cio-Cio-San)
© Soda Street Productions

The cast selection was magnificent. Korean Mariana Hong, who has brilliantly sung Cio-Cio-San all over the world, was well paired with Angus Wood as Pinkerton. They brought great chemistry to their singing, at their best in the wedding night scene where, embraced by seductive orchestral music from an inspiring Adelaide Symphony Orchestra under Swedish Tobias Ringborg, both projected warmth and affection, their voices full of sweetness and intimacy as they launched into the beautiful duet. Warm lighting bathed their shōji room, a multitude of lanterns descend around them and golden leaves fluttering down, enriching a magical atmosphere of closeness. Wood keeps getting better. His smooth, tender tenor voice conveyed arrogant superiority as, hands in his pockets, he inspected the premises Goro was offering, yet soared with a beautiful timbre when, a short time later, he was describing Butterfly’s innocent charms to Sharpless. Hong, a soprano blessed with a beautifully versatile and controlled expression, excelled all night. With her wide range of emotions inviting us into her romantic hopes and dreams, she held us spellbound through her show-stopping “Un bel dì”, her timing remarkable, her voice overflowing with hope. Yet it was her silence that was most moving. As Act 2 was concluding she stood, spotlit and alone, outside her house, her son Sorrow asleep inside on Suzuki’s lap, her joy at the thought of Pinkerton’s return gradually morphing into the realisation that this was probably not to be; a powerfully expressive theatrical moment.

Douglas McNicol (Sharpless), Mariana Hong (Cio-Cio-San) and Angus Wood (Pinkerton) © Soda Street Productions
Douglas McNicol (Sharpless), Mariana Hong (Cio-Cio-San) and Angus Wood (Pinkerton)
© Soda Street Productions

Pinkerton was portrayed as a thoughtless cad, having procured a naive fifteen year old girl and groomed her to trust and love him, all the time remaining committed to a fiancée back home in America (even showing Goro, the marriage-broker, her photograph carried in his pocket). Once he left Nagasaki he wanted nothing more to do with Cio-Cio-San, even should he return. He voiced a confidence that reeked of arrogance, the like of which no tenor should be able to convey. Poor Butterfly, isolated and friendless, continued singing with blissful confidence that he would never desert her. Ultimately she could no longer avoid reality. It hit her hard. With a voice shot through with despair she grieved ”I am not the same anymore”, then finding a firmer edge, it was as if she had matured overnight. The joyous singing as she strewed flower petals to welcome Pinkerton was soon replaced with the firm resolve of “one who can no longer live with honour can at least die with honour”.

The tragedy of the consequences of underage sexual exploitation were here graphically depicted. The saving grace in this production was the remorse of Pinkerton who ultimately recognised the damage he had caused Butterfly. Wood was outstanding in the role, so much so the audience booed him at curtain call, not for his singing, which was indeed compelling, but for the believability of the character he so comprehensively created in the role.

Angus Wood (Pinkerton) and Douglas McNicol (Sharpless) © Soda Street Productions
Angus Wood (Pinkerton) and Douglas McNicol (Sharpless)
© Soda Street Productions

Douglas McNicol’s mellow baritone conveyed a wise and experienced Sharpless, the US consul in Nagasaki, who tries to advise the irresponsible Pinkerton, and to support the struggling Butterfly, with maturity and non-judgemental openness. Caitlin Cassidy, in her first SOSA performance, was remarkable as Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San’s ever loyal attendant, believable in her Buddhist prayer rituals, forceful in her Act 3 trio standing up to both Sharpless and Pinkerton, and always affirming and consoling in the presence of her mistress, her diction always immaculate. She was central to the beautifully poignant Humming Chorus where, withdrawing inside the transparent house with the child, she kept a visual link with Butterfly who stood exposed and alone outside. Meanwhile, silhouetted on either side, were the chorus, lanterns in hand, which they extinguished one by one, added another layer of piquancy.

Simple moving sets revealed a rich 3D garden backdrop which, for Acts 2 and 3, sprouted an array of blossoms. The transparent chamber which encased the dying Butterfly was awesome, with its platforms withdrawn, isolating her as if on an island. At the same time, once she had transfixed herself, red light began descending, encompassing all until the whole stage became blood red in colour. At its peak, and far too late, Pinkerton came running in, forced open the doors, and gazed despairingly at the death and disaster his actions had ultimately caused. His final ownership of the tragedy a redeeming feature of this opera.

*****