With Madama Butterfly, the 107-year-old Issac Royal reclaims its title as the 'Grand Old Lady' of NZ Theatre

It needed something special and NZ Opera has delivered it. Coming out remarkably well from the dangers of being compared to the previous renditions of an opera so well-known and oft-performed, Giacomo Puccini's 100-year-old story of love and betrayal between a Japanese geisha and her US naval officer husband, is set to mesmerise Christchurch in the coming week. 

  Courtesy:  NZ Opera  

Courtesy: NZ Opera 

If you have been in love, ever, you will feel her pain!

If you have waited for someone with such desperation that your very existence lost its meaning, you will feel her pain!

If somebody, to whom you devoted yourself selflessly has betrayed you, you will fell her pain!

She was Cio-Cio-San – a once-rich but now a poverty-stricken 15-year-old geisha – who loved, married and devoted herself to a US naval officer in the 20th century Meiji Japan. But the officer left her, remarried and returned with his new wife to take their only son away from Cio-Cio-San - or Butterfly, as she was known courtesy her sweet delicate presence. Broken-hearted, she parted with the child and committed hara-kiri overwhelmed with grief.

Whether its this story of Butterfly's selfless love, devotion, hope and honour; or the awesome talent of Paris-born Anne Sophie Duprels who plays her; the latest offering from NZ Opera is an emotional odyssey of – as Puccini himself said - “Great griefs in small souls”.

Directed by Kate Cherry, who also directed NZ Opera's recent production La traviata, the production is full of dreamy washes of colour, enchanting scenic sets, and sumptuously detailed costumes. Lighting designer Matt Scott and production designer Christina Smith are in top-form here, propelling Madama Butterfly to be one of the most beautiful productions from the company till date.

But as is generally the case with operas, the soul of this production is the international ensemble orchestra, led by the magnificent Italian conductor Francesco Pasqualetti, and including the Freemasons New Zealand Opera Chorus and the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra.

Especially the Coro a bocca chiusa (Humming Chorus) which transcends Acts Two and Three, with Butterfly keeping a night vigil hoping for her husband's return.

Or the Un bel di (One Fine Day) – one of the opera's most famous and iconic arias – when Butterfly sees her husband's ship arriving in Nagasaki, and couldn't decide whether to go and meet him at the harbour, or wait for him at home.

Puccini always meant the arias and choruses of his creation to convey the anguish of a young woman desperately in love, as well as the promise of an impending reunion. Pasqualetti and his team ensures that you experience those same emotions along with Butterfly.

Performance-wise, while Duprels betters her wonderful and emotionally moving depiction of Jenůfa in the company's earlier production; Angus Wood as the US naval officer husband – B F Pinkerton, Kristin Darragh as the maid – Suzuki, and Christchurch's very own Jared Holt as the American counsel – Sharpless, give very nuanced depiction of their respective roles.

Especially the closing duet between Butterfly and Pinkerton in Act One – a scene of their wedding night – where she is demonstratively madly in love, while he is caught up between his feelings of lust and real emotional attachment. It was an emotionally-draining duet requiring several blooming high-notes and tender soft low-notes. And Duprels and Wood couldn't have done it better.

It's always tricky to review shows at dress rehearsals, even if it's the final full rehearsal before the gala opening.

Some technical issues may crop up. The conductor might still be perfecting the orchestra. Or even the singers – as the announcer told before the performance – may prefer marking during the show.

For the newly-initiated, marking refers to less strenuous method of singing during rehearsals to protect one's voice for full shows. In other words, audiences mustn't expect roles to be sung whole pedal-to-the-metal during rehearsals.

Thus, to be fair, a review of an upcoming performance based on the final full rehearsal should not only take into account what was on the stage. It must also extrapolate, give credence to the performance's intent and the chances of eliminating all the tethering errors.

Moreover, all things being equal, the barometer of success for every creative expression of any art form is whether it has the ability to immerse audiences into itself. That is, when in it – reading a book, listening to music, or watching an opera for that matter – whether we loose our sense of time and space, our very sense of being.

And Madama Butterfly scores heavily on all these points!


Note: NewZzit attended the final full rehearsal of Madama Butterfly at the Issac Royal Theatre, Christchurch, on Tuesday, July 21st. The show opened for public a few days later. Details here.