Review by Selwyn Manning. Images by Neil Mackenzie.
So often the arts provide us an opportunity to view culture and practices of past times. And Madame Butterfly, currently being performed at Auckland’s The Edge Aotea Centre, is one of those stories.
Put simply Madame Butterfly is a tragedy for any time.
Founded on the revelations of Sarah Jane Correll, an American missionary who was based in Nagasaki during the latter part of the 19th Century, Madame Butterfly places us back at a time when sham marriages became commonplace after Japan opened its culture to traveling American and European businessmen and gentry.
Cio-Cio San (Butterfly) is only 15 years old. She came from a family of relative privilege but one that through bereavement had fallen on more insecure times. Butterfly is representative of many young women of her time whose real life was taken by those seeking gratification and experience.
In 19th century Japan social insecurities, like is so often today, opened the disempowered to exploitation. And while Butterfly didn’t realise it, she was about to be destroyed by degrees by those who professed to love her. Her simple and honest life has been brought back to life on stage by New Zealand Opera’s fabulous performance of Puccini’s masterpiece.
Unlike Puccini’s opening night, which apparently was an absolute fiasco, New Zealand Opera’s opening night in Auckland set the bar so very high.
Auckland Philharmonic is simply brilliant before its conductor Tobias Ringborg.
Madame Butterfly is so demanding of its central characters, and especially so of the story’s prima-character.
I wont give the story away here, but performing Cio-Cio San (Butterfly) is Antionette Halloran, a celebrated Australian who performs with major opera companies and orchestras, who never falters, never paces herself, who holds the audience in her hand as her character waits seemingly… endlessly… for her long lost love and ‘husband’ Mr Pinkerton to return from his world to hers. It is performed so sensitively, so raw, you could feel the moment approaching when Butterfly’s love sank beneath hope. You witnessed when her hope faded to loss, and how worthlessness took hold as the Japanese lanterns dimmed behind her. It’s during moments like this when you can sense an audience’s extraspection becomes introspection.
Mr Pinkerton is performed by Piero Pretti, an Italian tenor whose concert repertoire includes arias by Verdi and from Rigoletto.
Sharpless is performed by the UK’s Peter Savidge, and the wonderful Suzuki is performed by the USA’s Lucy Schaufer. Goro is performed by New Zealand’s own James Rodgers and The Bonze by New Zealand’s wonderful Richard Green. And look out for little Sorrow, Butterfly’s young sandy haired boy, who is wonderfully performed by Finn Goodson or Nicholas Williams in the Auckland shows, and by Finn Bowden in the Wellington performances.
What’s in evidence is Auckland’s opera fraternity is being joined by a new wave of performance goers. Opera is in vogue as it should be and it’s clear to see why. The stories, the music, and the performance by cast, musicians and choreographers of world class are touching people of all walks.
It’s a wonderful thing to see, as it presents these stories, messages from centuries ago in a way that continue to speak to us, to challenge us.
As is too often the case, cultural tragedies are not solely relics of past times but have contemporary relevance and a practice that lingers on within the shadows where we choose not to look.
Only this month the British press’ Telegraph wrote of how sham marriages are all too common in our 21st Century world.
It isn’t solely an exploitation of the young and vulnerable from developing countries, but involves us all wherever we may live.
On Saturday, the New Zealand Herald reprinted that Telegraph article reporting how Nausheen Tobassum, a young girl from Hyderabad, “escaped from her home after her parents pressured her to consummate a forced marriage to a middle aged Sudanese man who had paid around $2,100 for her to be his ‘wife’ for four weeks”. Like Madame Butterfly, Nausheen was exploited by those who supposedly loved her: her parents, her aunty, and her extended family.
It is a wonderful moment when a performance challenges us to escape to another world. It is sheer magic when a performance challenges us to try and make a difference now, even after a century since it was first told.
So bravo to Madame Butterfly and to all those at New Zealand Opera who brought her sad story back to life again.
- Auckland’s next performance dates over the next week are:
Wednesday 24 at 7:30pm; Friday 26 at 7:30pm; Sunday 28 at 2:30pm.
Pre Show Talks: 20, 24, 26 April 6.30pm; 28 April 1.30pm Air New Zealand foyer, Level 5, Aotea Centre; and Opera Exposed & Friends Night is 24 April from 6.30pm.
And Wellingtonians will also get chance to see this fabulous opera with performances scheduled for May 11—18 at Wellington’s St James Theatre.