Madame Butterfly

ARTS, Theatre & Performing Arts

By Giacomo Puccini; presented by New Zealand Opera
Directed by Kate Cherry; Conducted by Tobias Ringborg
St James Theatre, Wellington | May 11-18

Pinkerton (an American naval officer, ably performed by Piero Pretti) has fallen in love with geisha Cio-Cio San (the luminous Madame Butterfly, Antoinette Halloran) and buys a house in Nagasaki. They are married, but not before she must convert to the “American God”, for which she is duly disowned by her uncle and family. US Consul, Sharpless, is similarly distressed by the union. As everyone fears, Pinkerton returns to the States, finds himself an American wife, but not before he unwittingly conceives a child with his Butterfly. She waits for him for three years. When he eventually returns to Japan to end it all, Butterfly bumps into the new Mrs Pinkerton and kills herself.

Halloran and Pretti excel in their performances, Halloran in particular displaying the exemplary control and vocal dexterity demanded by her role. Other highlights include gravitas-laden Lucy Schaufer as Suzuki the maid (easily the performance of the evening, utterly generous in her conviction), and Peter Savidge as Consul Sharpless. Around this core cast the production revolves and it is their sustained efforts that lift an uninspiring chorus.

If the plot and score pander to public sentimentality, so too does the design and performances; this production is essentially a manifesto in the double percussive, lacking contrast as much as content. It is not enough for the audience to be whacked over the head by lyrical metaphor (the house is a cage, is a lantern, is a garden, is the board on which a butterfly is pinned, is the pin through its heart), but they must be physically manifest. Stars descend as a host of lanterns and a mist of glitter; Butterfly decorates her home with petals so too must they plummet from the heavens.

This bizarre and unfortunate effect is made necessary by an otherwise flat and horizontal set; a tall upturned rectangular structure dominates centre stage, the forgotten upper-half made of carved panels, the bottom composed of screens that can expose and enclose space. All of the action is performed on stage level and not only lacks height but also depth (one can almost hear the dictum “front and centre” resound across the orchestra pit). It rapidly becomes apparent the screens are purely a distraction from the performers’ stagnant use of space. A colourful garden backdrop of cherry tree and blossoms is fine, if a little bland. Matt Scott’s lighting is the saving grace of the production, lending intimate colouration despite at times treading the line of emotional didacticism.

Thematically no attempt at innovation has been made; rather it is scarily traditionalist. The house still represents Man and America, outdoors Woman and Japan. Butterfly’s other-ness is consumed by her suicide inside the house. Nothing has been offered to extend or expand on the thematic potential of the opera, so there’s really no need to comment except to say that it is dated.

Nevertheless the general public consensus was one of praise. It was noted to me that Madame Butterfly with its waif-thin sentimentality doesn’t stand up to innovation, and this may be true. So should people go? Well, with an already sold out season chances of getting a late ticket are slim; and I wouldn’t cry over spilt milk. This opera is a marvellous exercise in pampering commercial taste, with its equal portions of high drama and sweet-toothed domesticity tempered by pretty, self-explanatory execution.