A last minute invite to the opera was a welcome distraction to a Thursday evening – New Zealand Opera’s first production of 2013 is Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” and played to a almost full house at the newly refurbished ASB Theatre in the Aotea Centre.
The plot you will probably know – the philandering Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, US Navy, finding himself in Nagasaki takes a wife, the completely naïve and trusting Cio-Cio-san (Butterfly). Ignoring the warnings of the local consul, he settles to a temporary life of conjugal bliss while in Japan and then leaves, seemingly never to return. Butterfly, disowned by her family, remains convinced that he will return one fine day. He does after three years but with his American wife. What he doesn’t know is that Butterfy bore him a son. He can’t bring himself to see her again and in the shame of it, Butterfly commits suicide, preferring to die with honour than dishonour.
Put simply, this production is visually and musically fantastic. Antoinette Halloran is a vocally powerful and captivating Butterfly and the star of this show. The role demands a full set of strong un-Japanese emotions and she conveys the delicate naivete, the misguided hopefullness and the brokenheartedness extremely well especially in the aria “Un bel di” (One Beautiful Day). She works and sings very well with the rest of the cast and her duets with Pinkteron and Suzuki are true highlights.
Lucy Schaufer is a marvellous Suzuki and for me, the most accomplished artist in the production. She calls herself a singing actor and she is certainly that with Japanese cultural mannersisms perfectly executed – something she learned from living in Japan as a youngster. Her knowledge of the role is deep, having been in several productions most recently in Houston and of all the cast she is the most comfortable in a kimono.
Peter Savidge’s Sharpless is perhaps a bit more British consul than American. Dapper in a cream suite and panama hat and vocally strong, he is caught between a rock and a hard place thanks to Pinkerton’s departure and conveys the dillema he faces as a diplomat would in a rich baritone.
Piero Pretti as Pinkerton is well voiced musically, if a little wooden in the acting department. This may have been a deliberate touch from director Kate Cherry who chose to emphasise the roles of Butterfly, Suzuki and Sharpless most of all. Nonetheless, his singing in Act One is strong and a pleasure to listen to. There’s only one problem in the casting. Pretti is not “tall and strong” as Butterfly says. There were a couple of stifled guffaws in the audience at that point.
James Benjamin Rogers cuts a dapper figure as Goro in his half-Japanese, half-Saville Row costume. In this strong production, he is a bit overshadowed by the quality of the leads. The rest of the cast and chorus nicely complement the major roles.
The sets are of the high standard we have come to expect from recent NZ Opera productions – the action is concentrated around a ‘cube’ of tatami mats and surrounded by shoji screens which can enclose and widen the immediate setting as required. A lot of thought has gone into spatial awareness and works.
Most of all, Matt Scott’s lighting design is superb and takes the production from the ordinary to the sublime. It is exemplified in the duet between Cio-Cio-san and Pinkerton at the end of Act One with lanterns descending from the heavens as they sing. The vast majority of the costumes designed by Christina Smith are very good and Japanese in style. It is a hard line between keeping with an authentic look and not making it into something like The Mikado and for the most part the balance is achieved.
Swedish conductor Tobias Ringborg’s reputation in the opera pit is growing and he conducts expressively and with passion. He asked much of the Auckland Philharmonia and the orchestra rewarded maestro and the audience with some luscious sounds throughout the evening, a delight to listen to.
Overall, director Kate Cherry, the cast and NZ Opera can be well pleased with their efforts. For Kiwi opera fans, this is a must-see.
And you know what ? I get to go again next week. No, I am not apologising for denying someone a seat. Productions as good as this don’t come to town every day !