Madama Butterfly is a tragic love story, the tale of a naïve and romantic young Japanese girl who falls in love with an American sailor who betrays her.
Part of the Perth International Arts Festival, the production is an Australian exclusive and is performed at the fittingly beautiful and historic His Majesty’s Theatre. It is one of the world’s most loved operas and is ranked 7th in the Operabase list of the most-performed operas worldwide.
This production was originally directed by Anthony Minghella and was his first and only operatic production before he passed away in 2008. Minghella was better known for his work as a film director, among his credits, The English Patient and The Talented Mr Ripley. With his background in films, it is little surprise that his version of Madama Butterfly is so visual pleasing. The show deserves its acclaim as one of the best visual theatrical productions opera currently has to offer.
Madama Butterfly is an English National Opera, Metropolitan Opera and Lithuanian National Opera production, in association with the West Australian Opera.
An international cast join the West Australian Opera Chorus and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra conducted by David Parry. The result is a magnificent, vibrant, triumph of music and song.
The production makes full use of His Majesty’s stage – featuring a sloping stage and panels on the roof that mirror the vibrancy of the colours created by the lighting and costumes. The show opens with a dancer appearing at the back of the stage and walking down the slope, she is silhouetted against a magnificent red backdrop and joined by dancers who swirl giant ribbons around her, a hint to the tragic ending that will unfold.
In Act 1 a US Naval officer, Pinkerton, has arranged to marry a 15-year-old geisha known as Butterfly, whose real name is Cio-Cio San. As the scene is set we soon realise that she is madly in love with her American fiancé but that he sees the marriage as one of convenience until the day he finds a proper American wife.
As Butterfly and her relatives arrive at the house where the wedding ceremony takes place, “One step more”, “May good fortune attend you,” the lighting and costuming of the geishas and guests is magnificent and created my favourite scenes in the opera.
Without a doubt the talent of the show’s leads, soprano Mary Plazas (Butterfly) and tenor Adam Diegal (Pinkerton), is without question but I have to admit to being somewhat disturbed by the casting choices. Although Plazas was Minghella’s original Butterfly ten years ago at London’s English National Opera, I was immediately surprised to find a Westerner playing the part of a Japanese girl. In addition, Plaza who is 48 in real life is playing the role of a 15-year-old. Diegal himself is cast as an American, yet looks as if he has oriental ancestry. Then there was the height differential between the two performers which looked to be around 1.5 feet. Although this helped to add to the illusion that Plazas was only a teenager, I found it immensely distracting and the couple to be an odd match.
Another element of the show that was distracting were the subtitles. As the opera is sung in Italian, the subtitles are for the majority of the audience, a necessary evil. They appeared on small screens in the boxes at the sides of the stage. This caused a great deal of discomfort as I craned my neck side-to-side trying to read the them without missing the action on stage.
One element of the production I enjoyed immensely and which made Minghella’s production his own, was the use of puppets, giving it a distinctly Japanese feel. Hats off to Blind Summit Theatre who were responsible for the ancient Japanese Banruku puppetry.
Butterfly’s three-year-old son is portrayed by three puppeteers who do an outstanding job. The way they moved the baby was amazingly lifelike, he totters across the stage, reaches for his mother, looks at her with devotion and full trust, yet isn’t able to move a single facial muscle to portray all those emotions and actions. For me it was the interaction between mother and child that completely caught me off guard and left me reaching for my tissues.
Madama Butterfly is a beautiful, moving and utterly enjoyable opera that deserved the rapturous applause it received at its conclusion.
An English National Opera, Metropolitan Opera and Lithuanian National Opera production in association with West Australian Opera
by Giacomo Puccini
Directed by Anthony Minghella
Venue: His Majesty’s Theatre, Perth WA
Dates: 24, 26, 28 February 3, 5, 7 March 2015
Tickets: $28 – $230