Sydney Opera House, Opera Theatre: 9 April 2011
Choreography – Stanton Welch
Music – Giacomo Puccini, arranged by John Lanchbery
Costume & set design – Peter Farmer
Lighting design – Francis Croese
Cio Cio San (Butterfly) – Rachel Rawlins
Pinkerton – Robert Curran
Suzuki – Leanne Stojmenov
Sharpless – Adam Bull
Goro – Tzu-Chao Chou
Kate – Lana Jones
and artists of the Australian Ballet
Conductor – Ormsby Wilkins
Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra
When Stanton Welch adapted Puccini’s opera to the ballet 16 years ago it was his first full length work. He is now head of the Houston Ballet, and meanwhile Butterfly has played around the globe and of course has stuck in the Australian Ballet’s repertoire. The ballet is neoclassical, or more accurately neo-romantic: it uses the classical ballet forms and also visions and fantastic ethereal imagery, at times within worldly and concrete settings, something ballet in particular does so well, and really is its major strength as an art form, contributing to its appealing free and unique method of story-telling. It doesn’t really make sense to compare ballet to opera, I think Madame Butterfly shows why this comparison is false as it is very different from the opera, but it does seem to gain something in being a ballet — it at least becomes more refined and concentrated and, for me, Mr Welch’s lyrical flowing dances add a je ne sais quoi missing from the music, but moreover it opens up possibilities in the depths of the very difficult characters. For example, Mr Welch’s choreography quite masterfully uses point-of-view, especially when Cio Cio San’s visions and dreams precipitate before our eyes and we sense more wholly her psyche. At other times, she turns her back on the audience or disappears in the corner of the stage and other characters’ experiences and feelings take over our attention, most notably in Pinkerton’s Act I solo. The ballet is also paced perfectly, flowing continuously from scene to scene and dance to dance even over a scene change in Act II, it loses nothing of the plot despite cuts in the original opera’s score, but is very economical, never wasting a single step. Stylistically, the ‘niponerie’ lends itself well to ballet: there are many pas de chat, couru en pointe, and much character dancing, mainly for the smaller roles.
A prelude over the long opening drum roll began the ballet. Cio Cio San appears in a layered white kimono and robes of ethereal lightness behind a transparent black screen. Four enormous white pennants, two each side, shaped in long lobes like dragonfly wings, reaching the full breadth and height of the proscenium arch, ripple gently. On the crash of the gong, she is lifted by an invisible partner as she bends backward so her head and torso disappear. As well as perfectly meeting the ominous tone of the music, this was a neat bit of symbolism suggesting, perhaps even creating, so concisely a tenacious and celestial dragonfly aspect for Madame Butterfly.
From this deep and serious opening, the tone changes in a flash to the preparations and arrival of guests for Pinkerton and Cio Cio San’s wedding. The set is revealed; there is a painted backdrop of a misty green valley giving a cloudy suggestion of the outside world. A dark wood raised platform crosses the breadth of the stage in the back and there are two small structures in traditional Japanese architecture at either end of the platform. The fore-stage is black and shiny, giving some sense of a lacquered floor. All the servants and arriving guests dance liltingly and carefree with a festive attitude though they also express a general feeling of awkwardness at the prospect of the ceremony. Pinkerton bounces and turns expansively, seemingly out of scale with the scene, he flirts with Suzuki and rereads a letter from his yankee fiancée, so we see his mind is all over the place. Sharpless too dances an little out of scale with the general scene but seems more gregarious.
When Cio Cio San enters, she seems to coalesce from a cloud of mist at the back of the stage. She is veiled and well covered initially in layers of diaphanous robes, which she gradually sheds until the end of the act. She bows to the floor in the front centre of the stage and prostrate stretches her arms out backwards, turning her wrists in an unusual way as if breaking out of a chrysalis. She moves to and from Pinkerton with trepidation, now approaching him, now escaping his attempted kisses and finding safety in the corner of the stage where Suzuki provides a empathetic ear. Bridesmaids enter carrying tissue parasols and wearing pastel kimonos in subtly varied shades of peach and blushing cherry blossom. The marriage official and his servants wear heavier robes in darker, earthier maroons and pine-greens which set off the bridesmaids beautifully. Suddenly breaking the ice, as it were, Cio Cio San’s disapproving relatives enter, first her uncle who angrily and quite violently breaks in to physically separate her from her mistake, and throws her large, jewel-encrusted cross across the floor. There is no literal physical violence otherwise, but the intensity of movement implies violent anger. He starts swinging a sword but Pinkerton interposes his body, standing tall in seconde position — he often seems to end up in seconde — and the uncle backs down. Cio Cio San’s mother tries to intercede too, without anger but with even more intense desperation, and she invokes the father’s memory, summoning a vision of his suicide which appears prominently in the centre of the platform. But she can’t turn her daughter and is carried off.
The ‘vows’ are exchanged, Cio Cio San signs the contract carefully, elegantly holding the pen as if it were a calligraphy brush, to Pinkerton’s heavier flourish on his ‘Thomas Jefferson’. He builds a tacky little altar from a US flag draped over a table and Cio Cio San’s cross topped with his Navy cap, Cio Cio San adds her father’s sword and both kneel, but Suzuki seems to see through Pinkerton’s clunky chest-thumping patriotism. He gets up after a moment a starts throwing the whiskey around liberally.
After the guests are gone, Suzuki and the servants retreat with Cio Cio San behind a paper screen to dress her for bed and we see them as shadows projected onto it. Meanwhile Pinkerton dances a charged solo. He has since lost his white Navy jacket and waistcoat and wears only trousers and a minimal singlet. Mr. Curran’s slow controlled turns with leg extended, strong jumps and expressive gestures gave his character interest and so some humanity, as the character loses the social Navy man mask and shows more of his insides, now that he had gotten free of the ceremony and his friend. Cio Cio San joins him and immediately sheds the nightgown Suzuki just put on her. Suzuki takes it but remains on stage until the last minute more mesmerized and empathizing than curious, and then runs off shyly when the couple kisses.
Ms. Rawlins’ Cio Cio San is no less shy, but there’s no where for her to go now. She becomes gradually more comfortable with him as their extended pas de deux unfolds. It consists of very difficult catches, lifts and throwing swings giving their dance a rather precarious feeling. Ms. Rawlins, by her remarkable fluid movements, draping herself back bent over his knee and in giving even the lifts and catches an illusion of softness and fluidity, really didn’t seem quite solid. Though once or twice Pinkerton flings her on the floor, he is not really careless or insensitive here as the great trust in the partnering exists also in the characters. Though Cio Cio San abandons herself to Pinkerton’s hardly gentle dance, but which isn’t by any means rough either, her trust doesn’t seem misplaced. Or is this Cio Cio San’s fantasy vision of Pinkerton we are seeing? A fantasy vision Pinkerton does show up in Act II, in Cio Cio San’s dream the night before the real Pinkerton sails back into the harbor and again while she dances with Prince Yamadori, forced to by Goro the marriage broker. In that scene the fantasy Pinkerton appears in his singlet on the platform in the back of the stage (just where the vision of her father’s suicide took place), shadow-partnering her while she dances with the Prince and pretends to enjoy it, but we see her mind’s eye’s, or rather her heart’s eye’s point of view. Her dream shows her living with him in America, ladies in flowery hats and silk gowns fawn over her and dress her in the western style, much to her delight. It is a very weird and beautiful vision of that false dream which drew so many migrants to America. So it is left a little bit ambiguous where Cio Cio San’s fantasy ends and the real Pinkerton begins.
The way the transition into night in Act II was done was clever and fascinating. Paper screens were drawn across the scenery while it was changed, but Suzuki and Cio Cio San retreated behind them and were back-lit, projecting their paired shadow dance. The dance was farthest removed from classical dance, more authentic than the Japanese character dancing of Act I. Both danced with paper fans which by bringing nearer the light source could enlarge and shrink making a strange effect. The shadows were very black, sharp and detailed, reminiscent of greek pottery’s black painted figures, indeed the attitudes they struck were also resembled those captured on some greek ceramics. The exoticism and strangeness of this scene and the light-hearted ceremony of it, as wrought by the two friends, fit very well with their relationship in the ballet as a whole. Ms. Rawlins and Ms. Stojmenov developed this relationship very believably. The latter’s restrained and subtle sense of humor was always tasteful and her seriousness and independence of character, her beautiful and relatively earthy dancing gave Suzuki depth and provided a very stable root for Ms. Rawlins to anchor to. Ms. Rawlins’ Cio Cio San was not merely living in her own world, despite the fantasies and visions and sylphin quality of movement, but rather seemed very much connected with her surrounds and very human.
So her constancy seems very human, her teasing and repulsion of the somewhat tipsy Prince reasonable and her sense of humor tasteful and natural. She would seem also to teach something to Pinkerton about a more permanent plane, he seems repentant or at least full of regret, but runs off cowardly and Cio Cio San only catches a glimpse of him. She breaks down and the ballet comes to an end very quickly.
Ormsby Wilkins conducting the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, relished the lushness of the music without sentimentality. The playing of John Lanchbery’s orchestration of the vocal parts sounded not as soloists but more bubbled up from the orchestra to harmonize with the dances. The cuts from the score were seamless.
Tzu-Chao Chou gave some brilliant character dancing to his Goro. He played the physical humor with restraint and made wonderful quick, light jumps. He also managed to express the venality of the character seriously without being sardonic or seeming ridiculous. Adam Bull had great stage presence, giving his Sharpless a Pinkertonian tendency to dominate, perhaps though stealing a little of Mr. Curran’s presence in the first scene. He was remarkably expressive in Act II when he ‘read’ to Cio Cio San and Suzuki Pinkerton’s letter in mime and dance while also concealing its actual contents.
Ms. Rawlins and Mr. Curran did well with very difficult characters. Both had a strong feeling for both the music and the intentions of the choreography and this lent his character some hint of humanity, despite the character’s sordid actions and Don Juan traits, while the strong lines in his attitudes and the power and control in his technique added interest to the character rather than mere straight cardboard serenading and seducing. Ms. Rawlins expressed in her character maturity as well as the youthful and otherworldly qualities, her strong technique allowing a melting, floating quality of movement and fluid lyricism, which helped give the character a mystical and celestial aspect. Ms. Stojmenov also danced beautifully and floated when she danced but at the same time her Suzuki seemed grounded and stable, a foil to Cio Cio San, and she contributed much to the success of the ballet.