Review: Madama Butterfly – Joan Sutherland Theatre (NSW)

Directed by Graeme Murphy, Revival by Shane Placentino, Conducted by Carlo Montanaro

Reviewed by Charlotte Smee

A story about a 15-year-old Japanese geisha who is chosen, impregnated, abandoned, and finally brought to suicide by her American husband, composed by an Italian man who has never been to Japan, Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 opera classic Madama Butterfly is controversial to say the least. Katherine Hu puts it best in her NY Times opinion piece on opera’s racism problem: “The stereotyping of Asian women as submissive and exotic sex objects persists in American cultural works. Operas, while fantastical and fictional, still affect the way we perceive the people portrayed in them.” Graeme Murphy’s 2019 staging, revived by Shane Placentino, is a contemporary reimagining of the piece that blends digital content, dance, and spectacle in an attempt to distract from or modernise the work’s themes.

The grandeur of the set by Michael Scott Mitchell and digital content by Sean Nieuwenhuis is undeniable, with a huge glass and metal turning platform edged with sharp knives and towering digital screens showing everything from American flags to robot assistants serving whisky to guests. The opening scenes featured nude women tied in red shibari ropes, dangling off the central platform. Then, Cio-Cio San’s Butterfly dancer double Naomi Hibberd is lowered from the ceiling tied onto a skeletal formation of large red ropes – wings, but not as you know them. Visually striking, yes, but rather than enhancing any emotional complexity of the piece, often I found the imagery incoherent, distracting, and either too bright or too dark. 

At times the design even moved into Orientalist territory, leaning very hard on the image of the red rope, using images of nude Asian women in ways that were irrelevant and featuring a strangely placed Buddha where other Japanese religious imagery was thin. Especially uncomfortable was the way women were used as props – perhaps tying into the themes of the work but never in a way that was improving on the libretto. Cultural appropriation is tricky territory in the operatic world, but to borrow Oliver Reeson’s words, the result of these design choices – while referencing Japan – are like “a toddler who comes in from the garden and shows you a bunch of sticks and leaves”; exciting, full of energy, and incomprehensible.

Despite all of this, South Korean soprano Sae-Kyung Rim as Cio-Cio San shows incredible vocal dexterity and control.

Costuming by Jennifer Irwin is similarly lavish and visually striking, but also confused. Black and white striped kimonos with matching fans on chorus members were lovely with the black and white striped screens behind them, and Cio-Cio San’s black leather kimono in the opening scenes was a sight to behold. Later on in the piece, Cio-Cio San confusingly dons a modern black leather skirt and black leather jacket, and Pinkerton’s new wife Kate sports a Jackie O-esque pink Chanel suit. This was jarring and further muddled where in time this production was set. The high priest Bonze is dressed in a grey architectural skirt and giant origami crane back piece to denounce Butterfly – again, striking but without purpose and without context or meaningful attention to the culture it claims to represent.

Despite all of this, South Korean soprano Sae-Kyung Rim as Cio-Cio San shows incredible vocal dexterity and control. Diego Torre as Pinkerton was unfortunately replaced at the second act due to illness, but his young replacement Thomas Strong brought fantastic clarity and presence to the role. Sian Sharp as Cio-Cio San’s right hand woman was suitably cheeky, and her voice along with Thomas Strong and Michael Honeyman as Sharpless in the second act’s “Io so che alle sue pene” melded and moved beautifully. The Opera Australia Orchestra, conducted by Carlo Montanaro, were tight and brilliant. Ditto for the Chorus, bringing depth to the instrumental interlude of the second act.

The final scenes in which Butterfly suicides were especially disappointing. A ceremonial blade descends from the ceiling, and Butterfly swipes at her neck and falls to the ground, prompting uncomfortable laughter from some members of the audience. 

To quote Hu once more, “opera companies have a responsibility to present classics in a way that helps audiences understand how problematic histories continue to reverberate today”. Whilst it is great to have an Asian soprano sing Cio-Cio San,  it is not enough to bring Madama Butterfly into the 21st century, particularly when this is the role that brought Japanese soprano Tamaki Miura to fame in 1915-20. Then, the NY Times asked if “tiny” Tamaki was “an artist or a curiosity”, and this production isn’t far from presenting Sae-Kyung Rim as a curiosity in a collection of Japanese images. If you are new to opera, this production brings all the grandeur you’d expect – plus the weight of opera’s dark history. 

If you’re looking for an opera company that’s more socially aware in Sydney, try The Cooperative instead. If you’re looking for good Asian-Australian theatre, see Golden Blood at Griffin.

Reviewer rating:

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Photo Credits: Guy Davies

Madama Butterfly plays at the Opera House until 30th July 2022. Tickets can be booked here.

CONDUCTOR Carlo Montanaro
DIRECTOR Graeme Murphy AO
CREATIVE ASSOCIATE Janet Vernon AM
REVIVAL DIRECTOR Shane Placentino
PRODUCTION DESIGNER Michael Scott-Mitchell
COSTUME DESIGNER Jennifer Irwin
LIGHTING DESIGNER Damien Cooper
DIGITAL CONTENT Sean Nieuwenhuis

CAST
CIO-CIO-SAN Sae-Kyung Rim
SUZUKI Sian Sharp
PINKERTON Diego Torre
SHARPLESS Michael Honeyman (until Jul 13)
Luke Gabbedy (from Jul 16)
GORO Virgilio Marino
BONZE David Parkin
YAMADORI Kiran Rajasingam
KATE PINKERTON Jane Ede
COMMISSIONER Alexander Hargreaves
REGISTRAR Gregory Brown
Opera Australia Chorus
Opera Australia Orchestra

Read more about cultural appropriation, racism in opera and other concepts in this review below:

What Is Cultural Appropriation? | Britannica

Opinion | Classical Opera Has a Racism Problem – The New York Times

JAPANESE SOPRANO SINGS BUTTERFLY; Tiny Tamaki Miura Makes Her New York Debut with Boston Opera Company. HER PERSONALITY CHARMS But Her Voice In the Lower Ranges Is Seldom Good ;- Is She an Artist or a Curiosity? – The New York Times 

Ping, Pong, Pang: we went to enjoy the opera but found it perpetuating racism 

Turandon’t? On racism and representation in opera

Opera is stuck in a racist, sexist past, while many in the audience have moved on 

Seattle Opera – Cultural Appropriation & Madame Butterfly

Cultural appropriation – Creative Equity Toolkit

Not Who But How | Oliver Reeson on Craig Silvey’s Honeybee 


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