Madama ButterflyOksana Dyka as Cio-Cio-San in Opera Queensland's production of Madama Butterfly

A girl is purchased for marriage at 15 years old; a man disregards his marital vows, as his wife is not of the ‘right’ race; and she takes her own life in shame. Alternatively, a young woman is wooed and caressed into a passionate marriage; a man, bound by duty to his country, is torn away from his one true love; and the woman cannot bear to live a moment longer without him. Whichever way you look at it, Madama Butterfly is a beautiful stage show. While its morals and plot loop-holes are questionable, perhaps even clichéd, the artistry of the performers and the tragedy of the tale are radiant. Madama Butterfly, performed by Opera Queensland with The Queensland Orchestra, and originally written by Giacomo Puccini, is an opera of epic quality. One of the most frequently performed operas around the world, Madama Butterfly tells the tale of the sweet young Geisha, Cio-Cio-San (Madame Butterfly) who marries Lieutenant B F Pinkerton, when his US Naval ship is in port. (Historical correctness is not one of the opera’s strongpoints, but we will look past this.) The marriage takes place in Act I, while Act II sees the family three years later, when Madame Butterfly is desperately waiting for her beloved to return to Japan from America. His arrival is marred by the discovery of his new marriage to a ‘real American wife’, and Cio-Cio-San is so broken and distraught she gives her son to Pinkerton and his new wife and then takes her own life. Slightly melodramatic, but then, this is opera.  

Puccini’s score is captivating. Even those who are not normally accustomed to classical music can understand the passion and the fire of the librettos without needing to read the surtitles. This otherworldly clarity, which breaks down language barriers and reforms new connections with the audience, is not only due to the intensity of the music, but also to the skill of the performers themselves. 

Oksana Dyka premiered as Cio-Cio-San for her first time, and yet received a standing ovation on opening night. If this does not speak for her captivating performance alone, then surely her compelling voice, innocent grace and flowing beauty add testament to her power as a performer. Jerry Hadley as B F Pinkerton is both smarmy and humble, and he creates the perfect Pinkerton persona that the audience loves to hate. John Bolton Wood as Sharpless, the US Consul, is like a compassionate grandfather, a persona surely derived from his many long and successful years on the stage. Christopher Dawes, Jacqueline Dark, David Hibbard and Jason Barry-Smith all give memorable performances, but perhaps one of the most memorable performances of the night was given by Cio-Cio-San’s Child, a beautiful little boy who stole the hearts of everyone in the room just by running/toddling across the stage. 

The set design was brave. Russel Cohen and Peter England created a floating pontoon that literally was surrounded on three sides of the stage by about six inches of water. Downstage, and sidestages, rather than wings, the designers placed moving Japanese walls, which could be staggered at different heights throughout the production. These fake walls were about eight feet high, and then stretching high above them into the rafters was the same grey wall. It created an interesting effect, that confined the action to the ground level of the stage, thus oppressing the eye’s ability to wander. While it may have said something of the oppression Cio-Cio-San was experiencing, confined to her own home, I could not help but feel that there was an enormous amount of space above the performers themselves that was not being used. This was somewhat relieved by the ‘starry night’ effect that the grey walls could become when the lights were dimmed, but they still remained quite a dominant force in the production.

I was engrossed by the merging of set and movement in the opera. The chorus during the wedding scene largely moved in angular, stereotypically martial arts positions. These positions change at different movements in the music and create almost a moving painting that occurred around the main action.  Additionally, by clever direction, Moffatt Oxenbould and Matthew Barclay include what appears to be both a pure movement chorus and a clever utilization of stagehands. These white bandaged, ninja looking ethereal beings would place themselves wherever a new prop or costume was needed on stage, serve their purpose silently, and then almost walk on (through) water off stage. The same white beings were used in the surreal waiting sequence in which Madame Butterfly waits for Pinkerton to arrive at the house. Very pretty, and an easy way of getting props on and offstage, but apart from that they didn’t have much other point.   

Madama Butterfly is a classy, well-crafted, beautiful performance from start to finish. From the original modern eccentricities like the silent white beings, to the classic librettos and heart rendering duets, Madama Butterfly proves Opera Queensland’s ability to create impressive theatre.

Opera Queensland presents
Madama Butterfly
by Giacomo Puccini

Venue: Lyric Theatre | Queensland Performing Arts Centre
Dates: 19 May to 2 June, 2007
Evening performances: 19, 22, 24 (sunset), 26 & 31 May & 2 June (matinee)
30 Below (formerly Young Access) performances: 31 May at 7.30pm & 24 May at 6.30pm
Bookings: Qtix 136 246 or online

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