Sometimes in a performance there is a moment when everything just comes together; when every element on stage is operating at such a high level that the performance transcends these elements and causes one to become so immersed in the proceedings that you forget you’re at a performance at all. The audience at New Zealand Opera’s Madama Butterfly’s opening night experienced one such moment in the final parts of the love duet concluding Act I. The voices of Antoinette Halloran and Piero Pretti as the two lovers rose full-throatedly to the ecstatic climax as the orchestra surged through Puccini’s ripe orchestration, and onstage lanterns descended slowly from the ceiling, to unforgettable effect.

Antoinette Halloran (Cio-Cio San), Piero Pretti (Pinkerton) © Neil Mackenzie
Antoinette Halloran (Cio-Cio San), Piero Pretti (Pinkerton)
© Neil Mackenzie

If I say nothing else in the evening quite measured up to this moment, it is not to denigrate the efforts of the performers one bit. After a shaky entrance, Australian soprano Halloran made a capital Butterfly, her ample lyric soprano filling Puccini’s soaring lines with ease. Her characterisation of the Butterfly of the first act was a little simple (a lot of generalised simpering) but she came into her own from the moment she revealed her son to Sharpless, portraying (vocally at least) Butterfly’s full gamut of emotions, her cries of “Morta! morta!” as she resolves to choose death rather than returning to life as a geisha painfully vivid. Her performance culminated in a gut-wrenching death scene, digging deep into chest register where appropriate.

As her seducer, Piero Pretti made a favourable impression immediately. His is an authentic Italian tenor, words crystal clear, and he showed up everyone else on stage with his instinctive knowledge of how to phrase Puccini’s melodies for maximum effect. Equally impressive was the ping of his high notes and the easy amplitude they had in the hall. Physically, his acting was mostly non-existent but it is hard to argue with such gorgeous vocalising, the voice portraying all the pain and remorse necessary in “Addio, fiorito asil”. It’s just a pity that Puccini didn’t see fit to give Pinkerton more music!

The smaller roles were mostly well taken. Though not the possessor of the world’s most mellifluous baritone, Peter Savidge is the kind of specific actor that one doesn’t often see on the operatic stage; his despair at Butterfly’s plight was clearly delineated in his facial expressions and body language. Mention should also be made of Lucy Schaufer’s Suzuki – we were lucky to have such a major voice in this role. Her deep, mellow mezzo anchored the Flower Duet beautifully and she radiated concern and anguish in the second-act scene with Sharpless and Kate Pinkerton.

This performance was also intended to show off Auckland’s newly refurbished ASB Theatre, and acoustically the result of the refurbishment must be counted an unqualified success. The sound is full and clear, a far cry from the old theatre’s acoustic, which tended to swallow voices, rendering them fairly ineffective. In the refurbished auditorium the orchestra also benefited from an increased clarity and they took full advantage, playing beautifully and flexibly throughout. Particularly memorable was the orchestral eruption as Butterfly revealed her child. As a whole, the score was masterfully conducted by Swedish conductor Tobias Ringborg who (refreshingly) refused to wallow in Puccini’s score. Speeds were on the quick side and, most importantly, there was a real sense of linear development, like the music was heading somewhere and when the climaxes hit they actually made sense as part of a complete musical fabric.

The sets, designed by Christina Smith for Kate Cherry’s production, are simple but effective, mainly consisting of shoji screens that can be manipulated and moved to create various spaces. Opening at the back the screens revealed a stunningly lit backdrop of brightly coloured trees. As the seasons and time of day changed so did the lighting of these trees, an exquisite visual effect. This technicolor (almost Disney-esque) backdrop, the aforementioned descending lanterns and the very traditional costuming gave the whole concept a slightly Hollywood-ish vibe, particularly as the whole backdrop turned bright red at Butterfly’s death. I find that Puccini requires acceptance of a certain amount of emotional manipulation to come off, but with such stunning visuals subscription to it was easy. The result was an emotionally shattering climax to the evening that had more than a few of the audience members in tears.