Saturday, January 17, 2009

BUTTERFLY performance

Driven by being the only one left in the known universe, or at least visible universe (includes Pittsburgh and Montreal), not to have seen Moffat Oxenbould's 10 year old production of Madame Butterfly, not to mention Cheryl Barker's take on the 15 year old geisha, I was there with M (K is still away dealing with a plunging aussie dollar) on Wednesday with all the other tourists. I felt like a tourist, gawking at the bats overhead in the balmy evening, in awe of the Opera House as usual, well the outside at least.

Already wised up to Cheryl having cancelled the last two performances, it was not a complete surprise to hear she wouldn't sing for us either. Some in the audience hissed when the announcement was made. They had probably forked out Australian dollars as well.

This production has been widely acclaimed as a stylish and arresting blend of Noh Theatre and traditional opera story telling. It was, in the end, much more traditional than I had expected, but no less attractive, with a deceptively simple boxed set of walls of vertical shojis and ceiling panels. Butterfly's drama played out on a wooden platform surrounded by water, isolated from, but connected by bridges to, the outside world, from which she was to increasingly withdraw, and ultimately exit. The action was aided by koken, stage attendants, here looking a bit like escaped mummies, masked to avoid getting Cheryl's cold, except she wasn't singing. But Antoinette Halloran was.

She was good. She projected well, in fact they all did, and perhaps the set, and especially the ceiling, sent the sound our way. There should be more consideration given generally to 'getting the sound out' from production designers, especially in bad theatres like ours, where the best place to hear things is probably up in the lighting. The orchestra sounded particularly good, led by the Taiwanese Mr Lu. He had it beautifully fine tuned, excitedly hurried tempos, beautifully arcing love melodies, all contained in a refined Oriental elegance, in a score which well favours the singers, well, the singer, for if nothing else, this is a one woman show. Even Puccini is said to have added the final tenor aria to ensure that a tenor would turn up, let alone stay till the last Act.

Halloren's Butterfly was particularly dark voiced. If she lacked anything, and it wasn't the notes or the power, it was the ability to lighten the voice to give us a girl-child risking everything for the love of, of all people, an American sailor and then evolve and absorb the complexities of isolation, motherhood and terminal rejection. Not surprisingly her first Act was her best dramatically. She did well, if not very subtly, with her big number "Un bel di" which I confess has never moved me (and this was no exception). The crowd loved it.

Julian Gavin's Pinkerton was more foolish and boyish than scheming and culturally selfish, though he too seemed stuck in his initial characterisation and unconvincing as the returned bigamist. But he was a good looking and good note ringing Pinkerton, despite one moment early on of a spreading tone under pressure which he kept well controlled after that.

Catherine Carby's lovely mezzo suited Suzuki well. You get the feeling she is a very grounded down to earth performer.

Graeme Macfarlane's Goro was very solid, the sort of strong performance I would have liked from Barry Ryan as Sharpless, who looked, and sounded, as if caught in the headlights. The confrontation between he and Butterfly in Act 2 has the potential to be gripping, but here the cultures didn't meet, let alone clash.

Yamadori, Luke Gabberty, was something else, tall long-haired and a more sexual suitor than the usual Mr Money you often get. I couldn't stop thinking he looked like Paul Capsis on stilts, except Paul Capsis is no baritone.

All this was dressed in beautiful colours, kilos of petals, all peach and pink, a universe of stars, candles and a few kilometres of silk. The Hollywood dream sequence dance was fun, if not completely successful; where's Robert Helpmann now we need him.

My only serious criticism is the ending. As everyone in the known universe already knows, here Trouble is carried off stage, hand outstretched to Mummy, before the nasty business in done. The usual prescribed ending of the child onstage, blindfolded, a silent non-witness to the death with honour, gives so much more emotion to the climax, as should Pinkerton's final appearance. Never mind, it remained good theatre and good opera, and most of the audience voted with their feet again.

Still, thinking back, for all that, it was somehow strangely unsatisfying, like a big carbohydrate meal, which gives a happy full contentment, but doesn't last. Perhaps there was too much prettiness, too many strong colours, too many screens moving too quickly too often, or more likely, I needed what she got.

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