“Addio fiorito asil”, sings Pinkerton in the final act, as he bids farewell to the location where he once had been blissfully happy with Butterfly. These words had added resonance last night, as Moffatt Oxenbould’s much-loved production of Puccini’s opera will be retired by Opera Australia at the end of this Sydney run. My sole previous experience of seeing a Butterfly mounted by this company was in 2014, when Àlex Ollé’s politically charged staging was the Harbour-side production. Within the Sydney Opera House itself, Oxenbould’s minimalist take has reigned supreme since 1997. Due to renovations to the iconic building, the metaphorical curtain will come down on this production in the Capitol Theatre.

Aidan (Sorrow) and Karah Son (Cio-Cio-San) © Prudence Upton
Aidan (Sorrow) and Karah Son (Cio-Cio-San)
© Prudence Upton

A production’s time can come for many reasons: wear-and-tear to the sets (any Puccini opera in Opera Australia’s repertory is going to be heavily used), diminishing box-office returns or simply the feeling that something new is needed. The production itself does not feel at all dated. This timeless staging has as few props as a traditional Japanese ryokan, although the water features with the floating candles were quietly spectacular. Many of the most telling effects were achieved through changes in lighting, as well as the varying configuration of the floor-length windows/doors around the sides and back of the set. For the wedding-night scene at the end of Act I, the back wall vanished to reveal a gorgeous starry night.

To the occidental eye, the costuming choices seemed to fuse together different aspects of Japanese culture. The silent, prop-shifting assistants wore facial masks that seemed to cross the bunraku (puppet theatre) tradition of invisible puppeteers with the sort of surgical masks one sees daily on the Tokyo underground. The colours of the guests during the wedding ceremony were derived from Kabuki theatre, with Butterfly’s fellow geishas in pinks, her family in blue, and the interruption of the diabolical-looking Bonze and his crew in red. The final Act I duet utilised the symbolism of white (Butterfly) and black (Pinkerton), foreshadowing where our sympathies would lie.

Among the chattering classes, the issues of ethnicity and opera casting have recently become a hot topic: London performances of Peter Eötvös’s The Golden Dragon were cancelled for “whitewashing” this story of Chinese immigrants by casting no Asian actors. But verisimilitude as a criterion for casting comes with its own problems: the black soprano Latonia Moore has spoken of being typecast as Ethiopian princess Aida, whereas she thinks Butterfly is her best role.

Diego Torre (Pinkerton) © Prudence Upton
Diego Torre (Pinkerton)
© Prudence Upton

Whatever one’s views on these issues (and many may feel it should be a matter for “ears” rather than “views” – if the singer has the right voice for the part, that ought to be more important than how they look), the Korean soprano, Karah Son as Cio-Cio-San (aka Butterfly) was an unquestioned triumph. She was simply outstanding, both as an actress and a singer. With subtle changes of expression, she conveyed Butterfly’s metamorphosis from joy to disillusionment as her faithless lover fails to show up during the humming chorus. Her rich, controlled delivery made the famous “Un bel di” a pleasure, and her duets with Suzuki and Pinkerton were among the highlights of the evening.

It is a testimony to how immersive the story-telling was that one expected Diego Torre to be booed at the final calls. Playing Pinkerton, one of the shabbiest characters in the operatic canon, he was his usual lyrical self, winning us over musically with his golden top notes as much as his character’s betrayal of Butterfly turned him into a pantomime villain.

Sian Pendry inhabited the role of Suzuki as much visually as vocally, through her carefully tailored gestures and empathetic presence. The consul Sharpless, as played by my Sydney Conservatorium colleague Barry Ryan, was dignified and yet compassionate as he found himself increasingly torn between distaste for his compatriot’s behaviour and his obligation to support him. Gennadi Dubinsky made a memorable entrance as the Bonze. Graeme Macfarlane was appropriately oleaginous as the pimp Goro, Sitiveni Talei a dignified Yamadori, and Jane Ede made Kate less insensitive than she can be (and a special shout-out to the little boy who raised the cuteness factor).

Torre (Pinkerton), Son (Cio-Cio-San), Gennadi Dubinsky (Bonze) and the Opera Australia Chorus © Prudence Upton
Torre (Pinkerton), Son (Cio-Cio-San), Gennadi Dubinsky (Bonze) and the Opera Australia Chorus
© Prudence Upton

One of the biggest beneficiaries of the relocation to the Capitol Theatre was the orchestra, which exchanged the cramped, acoustically problematic Opera House pit for a much more favourable space. And how the sound benefited! Under the experienced eye of Brian Castles-Onion, the musicians provided just the right blend of faux-orientalism and warm romanticism.

Opera as an art form is already so in thrall to the creations of the past that it has to reinvent its stagings periodically if the tradition is not to ossify completely. One can recognise the truth of this in principle, and yet lament the end of a staging which facilitated such moving story telling.

****1