The spotlights swept across the stalls and up onto the stage revealing a sea of bodies trussed up in bondage gear. Still in silence, a central figure was lowered from the ceiling, her red-rope harness tracing a butterfly’s wings. A besotted man in naval uniform hastened to her and embraced her on landing. In a few seconds, the backstory of Madama Butterfly was sketched out: the meeting of Pinkerton with the geisha Cio-Cio-San.

Karah Son (Cio-Cio-San) © Prudence Upton
Karah Son (Cio-Cio-San)
© Prudence Upton

This visually arresting opening set the tone for Graeme Murphy’s new production of Puccini’s beloved opera. Compared with the chaste imagery of Moffatt Oxenbould's production which it replaced, this is a darker take on the story. The raunchiness of the start felt like a watered-down version of the notorious brothel-scene in Calixto Bieto’s reimagining of Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail mounted in Berlin in 2004, even if the imagery thereafter was far less confrontational. There were projected images of balletic lovers on the scrim at the end of Act 1, but this was suggestive rather than overtly erotic.

Production designer Michael Scott-Mitchell combined a central platform on a turntable with the movable digital screens first used in Aida last year. Company director Lyndon Terracini hailed the latter as a technological revolution, and these did allow for some effective transitions; for instance, the imposition of the Stars and Stripes onto a lattice print as Puccini’s score referenced the American national anthem, and the desaturation of colour when the golden costumed Yamadori left the stage after his unsuccessful wooing of Butterfly.

Karah Son (Cio-Cio-San) © Prudence Upton
Karah Son (Cio-Cio-San)
© Prudence Upton

Elsewhere, a melange of futuristic and traditional Japanese images were projected onto the ‘walls’ of the set: digital servants, with whom Goro ‘interacted’ convincingly, as well as photos of older Japanese people when the lyrics referenced Butterfly’s ancestors. At times, the imagery felt heavy-handed, as when the red ropes from the opening scene snaked in patterns around the walls. Generally, it was most convincing when it was most abstract.

“Un bel dì”, the great Act 2 aria, saw Butterfly's words turned into dissociated kanji characters which floated gently up the screens, only to tumble down at her climactic top note. At moments like these the potential for distraction was great. Perhaps this is the inevitable reaction of someone at a transitional moment in staging technology, but I feel that less is often more, and a constantly changing backdrop risks upstaging the rest of the story-telling. Happily, some of the more important scenes were performed in front of black or static screens, a welcome relief from the backlit projections which tired the eyes after a while.

Gennadi Dubinsky (The Bonze), Andeka Gorrotxategi (Pinkerton) and Karah Son (Cio-Cio-San) © Prudence Upton
Gennadi Dubinsky (The Bonze), Andeka Gorrotxategi (Pinkerton) and Karah Son (Cio-Cio-San)
© Prudence Upton

The costumes by Jennifer Irwin again mixed elements from Japanese culture with modern – the Bonze was decked with a large paper crane on his back, the female chorus appeared in kimonos with aggressively unattractive floor-mop haircuts, and so forth. Butterfly’s demi-mondaine status was signalled by her long Matrix-style leather trench-coat, while the ‘Western’ characters were given suits or uniforms.

Whatever about her appearance, Karah Son, who also played the title role in the final outing of the Oxenbould production, was again an outstanding Butterfly. Her tone had a glorious purity to it, capable of laser-like focus when soft, and then opening out into a soaring upper register. The despair she feels as she learns of Pinkerton’s betrayal were heartbreaking to watch.

Andeka Gorrotxategi was vocally all one could want of the caddish Pinkerton, with ringing top notes and rich sounds. The second leads, Sian Sharp (Suzuki) and Michael Honeyman (Sharpless), also acquitted themselves with distinction. Sharp was particularly effective in scenes of confrontation or strong emotion, her mezzo voice easily rising above whatever else was happening on stage or in the pit. Honeyman conveyed regret and guilt convincingly. Virgilio Marino was suitably oleaginous as Goro, Gennadi Dubinsky made the most of his single dramatic scene as the Bonze, and Christopher Hillier was a sympathetic Yamadori. With unflattering floor-mop hair-cuts, the Opera Australia Chorus were reliable as ever.

Opera Australia's 2019 production of <i>Madama Butterfly</i> © Prudence Upton
Opera Australia's 2019 production of Madama Butterfly
© Prudence Upton

Dancing has always been a signature of Murphy’s productions, and so the significant incorporation of movement in the humming chorus and the Act 3 prelude was not a surprise. In the former, the singers were positioned off-stage, while a group of dancers dressed as ghostly trees swayed in arabesque. The prelude, which here followed directly on from Act 2 as per Puccini’s initial design, saw Butterfly engage in a pas de deux with her dancer alter ego.

But the talent was not all on the stage. The orchestral players under Massimo Zanetti were outstanding. His sensitive direction ensured singer audibility at all times, and yet the instrumentalists were not cowed into a characterless backing sound. Puccini’s score was giving a precise and vivid rendition. In sum, an excellent musical experience, and a highly interesting staging: definitely one to see.


****1