A palpable sense of expectation perfumed the air at the first opening night of Opera Australia’s 2022 Winter Season at the Sydney Opera House. Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly rarely misses its target and this production by choreographer-director Graeme Murphy, revived by Shane Placentino, promised a rewarding, if potentially challenging night.

Michael Honeyman (Sharpless) and Diego Torre (Pinkerton)
© Guy Davies

As so often commented on after its 2019 premiere, this is a production for our age: technologically slick, (seemingly) much controlled by the sleazy wedding-salesman, Goro’s (Virgilio Marino) remote control. With his device, he moves the massive LED screens surrounding the stage, making them resemble traditional sliding doors or creating digital pop-up waiters who offer whisky to the American guests. Projected on the screens are references to the storyline, visually arresting, if artistically monotonous. They describe what we have already heard and seen. They could have aimed for more.

Most of the action takes place on a revolving compact platform centre stage, restricting movement, particularly as it is raised up a few metres and no one dares to go close to its edge. It also enforces an uncomfortable proximity of opposites: American officers and Japanese locals, respect for the traditional and embracing of the modern, and other thought-provoking juxtapositions.

Sae-Kyung Rim (Cio-Cio-San)
© Guy Davies

Murphy’s stage works never fail to captivate. Part of his inventive concept serves the production brilliantly, such as the opening tableau with its striking red rope bondage scene, also subtly hinting at the unbreakable bond, Cio-Cio-San’s loyal love to Pinkerton (a sentiment he does not share). A thinner version of the red rope later returns as part of Butterfly’s spider net-like bridal veil, suggesting no good future for the marriage and again in the final scene, when the ceremonial knife is lowered with it from the ceiling. Then, however, catharsis is stifled as Cio-Cio-San commits her honourable suicide bloodless and on the back of her neck, while Pinkerton watches it haplessly from a few metres away.

Elsewhere, domestic life on stage is shown mostly in shades of bleak black and white. Bright colours mostly appear with the huge US flags projected onto the screens, in predictable golden hues representing Yamadori’s wealth, when spring is evoked by Cio-Cio-San and Suzuki “blowing” pink paint from spraying cans, filling the screens, or with the Japanese ladies’ “school-girl fantasy” greeting of the incoming American soldiers, reminiscent of cheap X-rated magazine images. The innovative ideas keep coming but they appear to be uneven.

Sian Sharp (Suzuki) and Sae-Kyung Rim (Cio-Cio-San)
© Guy Davies

The performance got off to a difficult start. Diego Torre, known for possessing a powerful Italianate voice, cracked a high B flat and lost his voice almost completely, forcing Pinkerton's young bride (soprano Sae-Kyung Rim) to sing the heart-warming love duet at the end of Act 1 practically by herself. While our sympathies were on the tenor’s side, the wisdom of allowing him on stage in such a condition is questionable. He was replaced by a young colleague in Act 3, Thomas Strong, who proved to be an equal partner to Sharpless (in Michael Honeyman’s warm, sympathetic baritone) and Suzuki (Sian Sharp, singing unerringly but not yet finding the right tone to express the pain of the loyal servant who says little but misses nothing). Strong’s farewell (“Addio, fiorito asil”) to his oriental dream, brief but touching, offered a modicum of compassion for his moral dilemma. He is vile and he knows it.

Cio-Cio-San was performed by the experienced South Korean soprano Sae-Kyung Rim in her OA debut. In outstanding vocal condition, she had complete control over the role technically. What I missed in her performance was the expression of Butterfly’s naïve vulnerability, and subtle signs to indicate how she (not unlike Mimì in La bohème) grows from a guileless very young girl to become a strong heroine, accepting her tragic fate with dignity.

Michael Honeyman (Sharpless), Sae-Kyung Rim (Cio-Cio-San) and Jane Ede (Kate Pinkerton)
© Guy Davies

The chorus of Opera Australia is always dependable and, despite their smaller than usual numbers, did not disappoint. A recurring problem, though, with most of the protagonists on stage, was their barely controlled vibrato. Perhaps we are conditioned to accept this as the “operatic style”, but would an instrumentalist ever win an audition or get a job with an almost measurable amplitude in their tone production?

Carlo Montanaro conducted with brisk tempos and assured hands. The orchestra, so experienced and impressive in times gone, sounded thin on this occasion. The opening fugato’s fury on the violins was infirm, the soaring cello melodies lacked depth and energy and the once-so-powerful brass section failed to arouse passion. A Puccini opera needs a consistently lush and passionate orchestral sound and this orchestra, perhaps still demoralised by extended lockdowns and recent cuts to its membership, found that difficult to deliver.