Andrew's Opera was previously published at

22 June, 1997

Madama Butterfly

Opera Australia, Sydney Opera House

Thurs 19th June 1997

PinkertonJay Hunter Morris
SharplessDavid McNicoll
Cio-cio-sanCheryl Barker
SuzukiIngrid Silveus
Cond.Patrick Summers

I personally disliked almost everything about this opera performance. The previous AO production was absolutely traditional, closely following the very detailed instructions given by Puccini and his librettist. It was highly regarded and had a very long run at the various Australian opera houses in which it played for over a decade. While fresh from a distance one could understand that parts of it were tattered and threadbare close-up.

So the new production had to be different. It had to suit the music and yet not distract.

It was certainly different. It contained almost nothing Japanese. There were no natural traditional Asian materials, fabrics, flowers, vistas or colours. No cane, bamboo or paper ornaments. Japanese do not insult easily, but the clumsy attempts at western impressions of the sunrise empire might have offended purists, just as the opera itself again puts America into a sorry light. Recycled staging ideas were aplenty.

Beginning from the top: the conductor commencing proceedings un-announced (cf. Otello), pond surrounding stage (cf. Tristan), paddling servants (Midsummer night's dream), draw-bridges (cf. Hoffmann), dressed, on-stage stage hands (cf. Bohème), silk ribbon dance (cf. Turandot), stars above set (cf. Tosca, and why did they move?), Tussaud-like framed figures (cf. Aida and others), vertical sliding screens (cf Ruddigore, Miss Saigon). Butterfly's entrance was no procession, except vocally. The death scene was also a major let down for me. The dagger did not seem to make its mark and Pinkerton, though heard, was not evidenced by anything but a nylon curtain blowing in the breeze (cf. Otello act III). Even Butterfly's flag was the post-war rising sun ensign.

The draining of the canals after the 'petal' diaspora misfired badly. Although there was nothing visible, much of the audience was reminded of the pissoir from the sound of the on-stage plumbing.

But what was new? The voices, or absence thereof in the case of the men. The visiting tenor had a big write up in the press. Like an alarm clock, his top was intact and exciting. What they did not tell us was that there was a weak mid-voice. Sharpless was also new to me - he sang quietly so as not to attract attention. I made a point of sitting in the front circle.

Only the ladies could really be heard from my position. Cheryl Barker's Butterfly was vocally superb. She took all the hard options, holding notes, avoiding breathes and injecting feeling and pathos into her hopeless state in this relentless plot.

Ingrid Silveus was equally moving as the ever-trusting handmaiden, Suzuki.

Patrick Summers, much as we appreciate his returns to Australia, was over indulgent with the tempo. One by one on opening night, the principal singers struggled, and failed to keep up with his unrealistic pace. This is so unnecessary in an opera where accuracy and poise matter. Individual orchestra members are often exposed in intimate moments and they played well and with due deference to this important music.

The audience response was rapturous and I was not in the majority in my flat feeling at the end. So much the reviewer's lot!

This production will improve with time. For my money it would be hard to do anything which would be to its detriment. It is a great advertisement for the concert performance when you run out of original and pertinent ideas to support the opera libretto.

Comments by Andrew Byrne ..