Farewelling Madama Butterfly

The most popular opera of all time, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, has hit the Capitol Theatre for its  final season.

Madama Butterfly is an exquisitely beautiful tragedy set in the early 1900s. The story follows Pinkerton, an American naval captain who has come to Japan and finds himself enchanted with a local girl, Cio-Cio-San whom he nicknames Butterfly. The two marry, but even on the wedding day Pinkerton admits to his friend that he plans to one day take a “true” American bride. Butterfly, however, is blissfully unaware, and in the purity of her devotion she willingly suffers the rejection of her family and even abandons her traditional faith, throwing away the idols of her ancestors’ spirits and turning to the American God. Soon after marrying, Pinkerton goes away with his ship to the States and is gone for much longer than Butterfly anticipates. Her friends try to tell her that she has been deserted and that she should consider marrying again, but she refuses to listen and remains fiercely loyal. Even when she reaches the point of poverty, she feels no temptation to marry one of her many rich suitors, but clings onto the hope of a reunion with her husband. When Pinkerton’s ship eventually does return, however, he does not come alone and finds Butterfly also has news to share.

Not only is Madama Butterfly a crowd favourite, but this particular production by Moffatt Oxenbould is one of the most celebrated in the history of Opera Australia. It premiered in 1997 and has been performed more than any other production in Opera Australia’s repertoire, not just in Sydney but all over the world, having travelled to China, Canada and America. It is now, after twenty years, the last chance to see the legendary production in the flesh, as Opera Australia is bidding a heartfelt farewell to Oxenbould’s Madama Butterfly with a final two-week season at the Capitol Theatre ending on the 4th of November.

The production has been universally praised for its sheer beauty, and it is not hard to see why. The gorgeous costumes, evocative sets and elegant choreography combine with Puccini’s magnificent music and the voices of some of Australia’s greatest talents to create a magical event that simply should not be missed. Designed around wood, water, silk and fire, the exotic, mysterious world of early 1900s Japan is summoned. The kimonos are aflame, there is an actual lake and even the starry firmament is conjured. The simple lines, blocks of colour, and clever use of screens and water are like an artwork on stage.

To augment the magnificence of what’s on stage, there is the ambience and aura of the Capitol Theatre itself. There is arguably no other venue in Sydney which can match the Capitol for elegance. With its regal décor and sheer scale, it lends itself so well to opera and is especially fitting for the grand event of farewelling such a beautiful production. With the Dame Joan Sutherland Theatre in Sydney Opera House closed for renovations, Opera Australia could not have found a better home to rent.

Madama Butterfly features some of the best known arias in the opera world, including ‘Un bel dì vedremo’, which Butterfly sings as she awaits her husband’s return, full of hopes and illusions. There are also some delightful duets, such as the delicious musical foreplay between Butterfly and Pinkerton on their wedding night, and the mournfully felicitous, bitter-sweet little number Butterfly and her friend-servant Suzuki sing as they scatter petals around to welcome home the much missed Pinkerton.

The stellar cast really does Puccini’s work justice. Celebrated South Korean soprano Karah Son makes her Australian debut as Cio-Cio San, or Butterfly, with a very moving performance. Both her singing and acting are finely executed. Along with her, we hope every hope and feel every blow. Australia’s favourite tenor, the incredible Diego Torre, takes on the most hated role in all of opera, that of Pinkerton, the American naval captain who breaks Butterfly’s heart. Torre does not disappoint, singing with all his usual vigor and swagger. Sian Pendry is notable as Suzuki, bringing some pleasing harmonies to her memorable duet with Butterfly. Some of the original cast of twenty years ago reappear for this farewell season, including Barry Ryan, Graeme Macfarlane and Gennadi Dubinsky. The Opera Australia Chorus and Opera Australia Orchestra perform to their usual high standard.

Madama Butterfly truly is an unforgettable experience for opera first-timers and aficionados alike. This is the final season and it is a short one, so get in quick so as not to miss out. Tickets start from just $50 for students.

– Alicia
Alicia Tripp is the Theatre Specialist for The Plus Ones, reviewing the premiere concerts, symphonies, operas, ballets and stage shows in Sydney. She is a seasoned arts and music critic, as a former journalist for the ABC Limelight magazine and State of the Arts. She has a degree in Media & Communications, English and Music from the University of Sydney.

Madama Butterfly shows at the Capitol Theatre until November 4. Purchase tickets now. The venue is accessible.

Disclaimer: The Plus Ones were invited guests of Opera Australia.
Image credit: Prudence Upton.