Left & Cover - Elisa Wilson as Cio Cio San. Photos - Jeff Busby
Madame Butterfly is one of the world's most beloved operas. John Bell is one of Australia's most revered theatrical directors. Declared a national living treasure and founder of The Bell Shakespeare Company, his appointment as the director of Oz Opera's new touring production of Madame Butterfly sounds like a match made in heaven.
Bell's interpretation of Puccini's famous tale sees the action taking place in post World War II Japan. Pinkerton (Jason Wasley) a young American soldier, marries a young Geisha known as Butterfly (Elisa Wilson). He then leaves Japan to return home to America, with the expectation that he will return to her one day. Renouncing her faith, her family and her nationality, Butterfly declares herself an American woman and waits loyally for him, whilst caring for their young child. When Pinkerton does return three years later, he brings with him his new wife Kate (Victoria Lambourn), subsequently breaking Butterfly's heart and setting in motion a chain of events that leads to her suicide.
This production will be touring to regional centres over the next 13 weeks, undertaking the admirable task of increasing exposure to the arts in communities who otherwise would not have access to professional opera. The required transportability has resulted in a reduced production not only in terms of set size and scale, but of the instrumentation as well, with a 13 piece chamber orchestra accompanying the piece, led by conductor Simon Kenway.
This necessary reduction in scale impacted greatly on the action and interpretation, which often seemed too large for the stage, with not enough space for the music to really resonate and soar. This tension was also true of the gestures and physicalisation of the piece. It appeared sometimes as if the the size of the action was catering for an audience that was in the back stalls of a vast concert hall, and not a mere few feet away from the performers. As the libretto was translated from the traditional Italian into English, perhaps not as much work needs to be done physically to convey the action to the audience, as no language barrier needs to be overcome with mime and heightened operatic expression. The interpretation of the score into literal English somewhat reduced the grandeur of the piece, limiting the room for imagination and the opera's ability to ensnare the audience within the romance and tragedy that Madame Butterfly is famous for.
Elisa Wilson in the title role of Madame Butterfly possessed sufficient vocal prowess for the score, but was less successful at bringing the subtleties of Butterfly's character to life. Madame Butterfly is a powerful enchanting woman who progresses from devoted naivety to a woman who takes control of her own destiny. It is a complex role that sometimes lacked nuance and sympathy that would have added depth to the character. Wilson was at times overshadowed by the portrayal of her faithful servant Suzuki by Karen Van Spall, who possessed a quiet dignity and embodied the underlying tragedy of the piece. Wasley's portrayal of Pinkerton was similarly vocally competent but not transportative. We need to believe and understand Butterfly's obsession and devotion to the dashing but hapless officer, but the required chemistry between the two romantic leads was absent.
Bell's staging of the opera in post World War II Japan did, however, have a certain aesthetic appeal. The production was designed by the late Jennie Tate, who died in December 2007, and was subsequently realised by Julie Lynch. The characters of Pinkerton, Sharpless (Ian Cousins) and Madame Butterfly all sport contemporary American apparel of the era. Particularly stunning was Pinkerton's wife Kate, who was resplendent in deep blue Jackie O style couture.
These touches, including Butterfly's transformation into an all American woman with her chamber adorned in kitsch American post war propaganda, amounted to a few token symbols and novel details, but lacked the interpretive clout that a thorough reworking might have offered. Bell is well known for his post-modern interpretations of Shakespeare, and from a director with such vast experience in adapting classical theatre, one might have expected a slightly defter hand. Whilst this production was a solid presentation of one of the world's most famous operas, it was somewhat lacking the directorial rigor of Bell's other works.
Oz Opera presents
by Giacomo Puccini
Sat 5 Jul 8.00pm Drum Theatre Dandenong VIC
Tue 8 Jul 8.00pm Frankston Arts Centre Frankston VIC
Thu 10 Jul 8.00pm Whitehorse Centre Nunawading VIC
Fri 11 Jul 2.00pm Whitehorse Centre Nunawading VIC
Sat 12 Jul 8.00pm Wyndham Cultural Centre Werribee VIC
Tue 15 Jul 8.00pm Esso BHP Billiton Wellington Entertainment Centre Sale VIC
Thu 17 Jul 8.00pm Karralyka Centre Ringwood VIC
Fri 18 Jul 8.00pm Clocktower Centre Moonee Ponds VIC
Sat 19 Jul 8.00pm Clocktower Centre Moonee Ponds VIC
Tue 22 Jul 8.00pm The Capital Bendigo VIC
Thu 24 Jul 8.00pm Theatre Royal Hobart TAS
Fri 25 Jul 8.00pm Theatre Royal Hobart TAS
Sat 26 Jul 8.00pm Theatre Royal Hobart TAS
Tue 29 Jul 8.00pm Her Majesty's Theatre Ballarat VIC
Thu 31 Jul 8.00pm Swan Hill Town Hall Swan Hill VIC
Sat 2 Aug 7.30pm Griffith Regional Theatre Griffith ** NSW
Tue 5 Aug 8.00pm Cowra Civic Centre Cowra ** NSW
Thu 7 Aug 8.00pm Orange Civic Theatre Orange NSW
Sat 9 Aug 8.00pm Civic Theatre Dubbo NSW
Tue 12 Aug 8.00pm Joan Sutherland PAC Penrith NSW
Wed 13 Aug 8.00pm Joan Sutherland PAC Penrith NSW
Fri 15 Aug 8.00pm Riverside Theatre Parramatta NSW
Sat 16 Aug 8.00pm Riverside Theatre Parramatta NSW
Mon 18 Aug 8.00pm Riverside Theatre Parramatta NSW
Thu 21 Aug 8.00pm Illawarra PAC Wollongong NSW
Fri 22 Aug 8.00pm Illawarra PAC Wollongong NSW
Sat 23 Aug 8.00pm Illawarra PAC Wollongong NSW
Wed 27 Aug 8.00pm Albury City PAC Albury NSW
Fri 29 Aug 8.00pm Paradise Palladium Theatre Morundah NSW
Sat 30 Aug 8.00pm Paradise Palladium Theatre Morundah NSW
Tue 2 Sep 8.00pm Civic Theatre Wagga Wagga NSW
Wed 3 Sep 8.00pm Civic Theatre Wagga Wagga NSW
Fri 5 Sep 8.00pm Civic Theatre Newcastle NSW
Sat 6 Sep 8.00pm Civic Theatre Newcastle NSW
Tue 9 Sep 8.00pm Lazenby Hall Armidale NSW
Sat 13 Sep 8.00pm Grafton High School Centre Grafton NSW
Tue 16 Sep 8.00pm Panthers Port Macquarie NSW
Wed 17 Sep 8.00pm Panthers Port Macquarie NSW
Sat 20 Sep 8.00pm Sportz Central Coffs Harbour NSW
Wed 24 Sep 8.00pm Broken Hill Entertainment Centre Broken Hill ** NSW
Fri 26 Sep 8.00pm Mildura Performing Arts Centre Mildura VIC
Sat 27 Sep 8.00pm Mildura Performing Arts Centre Mildura VIC
Wed 1 Oct 8.00pm Her Majesty's Theatre Adelaide SA
Thu 2 Oct 8.00pm Her Majesty's Theatre Adelaide SA
Wed 3 Oct 8.00pm Her Majesty's Theatre Adelaide SA
Thu 4 Oct 8.00pm Her Majesty's Theatre Adelaide SA
Further information: www.opera-australia.org.au