REVIEW: Madame Butterfly (NZ Opera)

Cio-Cio San aka Madame Butterfly (Antoinette Halloran) reprimanding Suzuki (Lucy Schaufer) for point out painful truths. Photo: Neil Mackenzie

Colourful Culture Clash [by Sharu Delilkan]

Cio-Cio San aka Madame Butterfly (Antoinette Halloran) reprimanding Suzuki (Lucy Schaufer) for point out painful truths. Photo: Neil Mackenzie

We were welcomed to the opening night of Madame Butterfly by The Edge’s Director Robbie Macrae, billed as the grand opening of the newly refurbished ASB Theatre with improved decor and acoustics.

Having seen Madame Butterfly more than a decade before in Hong Kong we were intrigued to see how an American-Asian love story would play in an Anglo-Saxon country.

The story of Madame Butterfly follows an ‘oh so familiar’ theme – one we saw repeated over and over again in Asia whereby a handsome European (Gwai Lo) charms a young, beautiful Asian girl into a relationship – both have different hopes, desires and cultural values that ultimately tear them apart. As with many of the Pakeha in Asia that ‘went native’ – a large proportion struggled to maintain their ‘love’ when it was time to head back to the motherland and often the besotted and flattered young girl was literally left holding the baby while the ‘husband’ goes home to his white ways and often back to his unsuspecting white wife. The difference in cultural realisation of respect i.e. face and bringing shame to the family are and have never been fully understood leading to tragic circumstances. Giacomo Puccini’s portrayal of these events still has relevance today, and I still recall how many people in the audience of the Hong Kong version ironically comprised of older Pakeha guys holding hands with their Asian girlfriends less than half their age.

Being one half of a 13-year mixed Asian-Anglo marriage myself clearly I am not blind to the fact that love can conquer all but unfortunately in Puccini’s opera it clearly doesn’t – resulting in numerous sobbing audience members around us. I guess that means they happily paid a fairly substantial ticket price in order to be reduced to tears – complemented by the sound of the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra. As always the APO’s performance was exceptional, giving Puccini’s score its due respect, highlighting hit melodies coloured with exquisite orchestrations.

Christina Smith’s striking modular set that filled the stage was the first thing that caught my eye as I sat down. It was vaguely reminiscent of the geometric scaffolding-like set that I had seen at the Auckland Arts Festival 2013’s dance show Babel. But that image very quickly faded as the fabulous Japanese rice paper screens were drawn open on stage. The silhouettes behind the screens added to the mystery of the production as we tried to get a glimpse of the geisha’s it cleverly shielded. I did however feel that as spectacular as it was, the set was a bit static. In addition to the movement of the traditional bamboo sliding screens, the cast could have been utilised a little bit more to highlight the set’s versatility and grandeur. And the huge trellis at the very top of the modular structure cried out for something like a giant elevator to rise up from the stage as a grand finale – I suppose my imagination got away from me, but I prefer dramatic sets to reach their potential but I’m afraid this one just stopped short.

Along with the amazing set Smith’s costumes were equally remarkable ranging from the mono-chromatic outfits worn by the Westerners contrasted by the bright colours of the traditional Eastern/Japanese garments. This contrast of colour to depict East and West was used to great effect throughout the production. For example when Madame Butterfly (Antoinette Halloran) denounces her culture and background, she is dressed in white, which is totally different from her earlier costumes that were vibrant and full of colour. The clever combination of East and West of the marriage broker Goro’s (James Benjamin Rodgers) attire was also particularly fascinating – the ‘Western-esque’ coat with Japanese ‘kimono-esque’ sleeves coupled with the Japanese men’s trousers made for a very fascinating ensemble, complete with a bowler hat.

I was extremely impressed with the attention to detail that the lead geisha Suzuki (Lucy Schaufer) brought to her character. Her overall body language and the way in which she bowed and walked backwards away from the people she was serving was totally believable and brought Asian authenticity to the role.

Some memorable lines in the liberetto included “in Japanese tradition…with the option for every month to annul the marriage”, “I’ve never heard of a foreign husband who returns to his nest” and “Japanese gods are fat and lazy”.

The duet between Pinkerton (Piero Pretti) and Madame Butterfly (Halloran), just before the interval, left the audience wanting more with their moving and memorable performances. However, while Halloran singing, acting and overall movement was flawless, I must admit I felt that Pretti was slightly miscast. He didn’t strike me as someone that Madame Butterfly would fall for and pine after. His overall stature and demeanour was not convincing as the dashing, debonair ‘Officer and Gentlemen’ type character that he was meant to be. Sharpless (Peter Savidge) however was a lot more believable as the American Consul.

The descending lanterns that light up in the background worked extremely effectively as a visual statement but was a fabulous metaphor for a moth going toward the light, paralleling Madame Butterfly’s disastrous destiny as she is drawn to the light i.e. Pinkerton.

Like Turandot, Pucinni’s Madame Butterfly has strong political messages juxtapositioning the Western and Eastern beliefs and traditions.

Despite it being the launch of The Edge’s refurbishment and acoustic enhancement I was more transfixed by the tragedy unfolding on stage than improved design or sound. To be honest at times I found the voice projection a little lacking, especially when Pretti ‘belted’ out his first few lines. The sound levels didn’t really set my blood racing at the dramatic moments and I didn’t at any point really felt like shedding a tear unlike many surrounding neighbours. What were they really crying about?, I wondered. Was it the story, the tragedy, the music or were some of them sitting next to their current partners quietly wondering whatever happened to a certain Asian butterfly of their own…

Madame Butterfly is presented by NZ Opera and plays at The ASB Theatre, Aotea Centre until 28 April. Details see NZ Opera.

SEE ALSO: review by Penny Dodd

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