There is nowhere to hide in Madama Butterfly. It is a well-known opera, contains very little in terms of stage action and changing scenery, is intensely lyrical in its vocal writing, and its orchestral writing is exposed. None of these factors bothered Opera Australia in their latest production, which was superb from beginning to end in every respect.

Hiromi Omura and James Egglestone © Branco Gaica
Hiromi Omura and James Egglestone
© Branco Gaica

The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra under conductor Ryusuke Numajiri was on top form, as good as I have ever heard them. The violins handled the exposed lines with great lyricism and excellent tuning, while the wind and brass sections were extremely solid, underpinning the string sound with panache and a great sense of ensemble. This supported a superlative cast headed up by Japanese soprano Hiromi Omura making her Opera Australia debut. She was much appreciated by the audience, receiving loud cheers and a standing ovation from sections of the theatre and fitted the role perfectly, performing with charm and singing in an utterly beguiling manner with the required amount of innocence and vulnerability, which the role demands. She was admirably supported by Dominica Matthews as Suzuki her maid, who has a difficult role to play, caring for Butterfly and entertaining her fantasies, while at the same time as knowing the truth and maintaining a sense of realism and pragmatism.

However, for me, the real revelation of the evening was James Egglestone, who played the part of Pinkerton, Butterfly’s husband. He has not been heard much in Opera Australia productions and I hope, based on this performance, we will have many more opportunities to hear him again in the future. He sang the demanding tenor role of Pinkerton with great ease but also with passion. His voice had a lot of colour and also much resonance and was thrilling in its upper register. The love duet with Butterfly at the end of the first act was sublime. He was utterly compelling in the role. His sense of guilt when he returns at the end of the opera was raw and heart-wrenching.

Michael Lewis as Sharpless the American consul was also very impressive. His voice had great drama to it as well as the necessary power and gravitas. Like Suzuki’s role, this is a difficult part to play well as he acts almost as a kind of mediator between the various characters, trusted to try and deliver difficult news to Butterfly and then at the opera’s conclusion to counsel all the various parties. He played this character with a great deal of integrity, bringing out the difficulties in his situation to great effect. Particularly convincing was the way in which he struggled and then failed to give Butterfly the news that Pinkerton has remarried. Special mention must go to the boy who played Butterfly’s son whose actions on stage were well choreographed and impeccably carried out by such a young actor.

This was a production in which the music and the singers were allowed to do the talking. Director Moffatt Oxenbould chose a very traditional, simple but effective set. The stage was transformed into a Japanese room, barely adorned with anything at all. Around this room was a moat, which provided an added bit of texture and variety to the stage Most effective of all however were the lighting effects. The whole set was surrounded with large windows adorned with blinds through which differing degrees of lighting shone depicting the time of day. During the love scene at the end of the first act the blinds opened to reveal bright stars and a moon lighting up the night sky. This provided the perfect backdrop for the excellent singers to deliver performances which were truly world-class.