Review: Australia Opera’s “Butterfly” Charms Pittsburgh – October 19, 2007

Those of us who spend most of our time in the Northern hemisphere may know very little about the work of operatic stage director Moffatt Oxenbould, most of it associated with the Opera Australia in Sydney. His most renowned production is of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”, which premiered at Opera Australia in 1997, and has been present in both the company’s Sydney and Melbourne seasons almost every year subsequently.

His production team included set designers Peter England (famed for designing the Awakenings segment for the 2000 Sydney Olympics opening ceremonies) and Russell Cohen.

[Below: Pinkerton (Frank Lopardo) with Butterly (Victoria Villarroel); edited image, based on a David Bachman photograph, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Opera.]

In 1997, Patrick Summers was a guest conductor at Opera Australia, and invited a visiting colleague, Christopher Hahn, artistic director of the Pittsburgh Opera, to witness the preparations for and premiere performances of the Oxenbould “Butterfly”.

Years later, Hahn was able to persuade Opera Australia to loan the production to Pittsburgh Opera for four October, 2007 performances. In May and June 2008, it will be seen six times in Montreal (whose opera company is sharing the transportation costs for the sets and costumes with Pittsburgh’s), then it will return Australia for the indefinite future. Its appearance in Melbourne in November 2008 has already been announced.

With only ten performances of the production likely to be seen in North America over a period of a year, it seemed a propitious time to make my first visit to the Benedum Center, the performance home of the Pittsburgh Opera.

For those who have not visited the Benedum Center, that in itself is an extraordinary experience. It is the reborn Stanley Theater, one of the most lavishly constructed and decorated palaces built in the late 1920s, when Pittsburgh’s steel, oil, food and other industries were producing unimaginable wealth.

Its exquisitely decorated plaster walls and ceilings do conscious homage to the baroque view of classical and Renaissance Art seen in the Palace of Versailles, although the designers of the original interior obviously liked the Alhambra also, with abundant arabesque panels incorporated into the theater’s side walls.

[Below: the interior of the Benedum Center for the performing arts; resized image for American Institute of Architects, Pittsburgh.]


Like the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, one of its treasures is a massive chandelier high in the ceiling. (One of the ushers wished me to know what an undertaking the chandelier’s periodic cleaning entails, having no trouble convincing me of this fact.)

The Stanley Theater, built by one of MGM’s founders, basically has had three lives – the first as a center for first run movies interspersed with live shows featuring the most famous of the Big Bands and touring big name vaudeville, Broadway and movie stars.

In the 1960s, the Stanley went through its first major restoration and became a favorite theater for the great rock tours of the 1970s and 1980s – including legendary appearances by the Grateful Dead and the very last live performance of reggae star Bob Marley.

(Billboard Magazine deemed it the number one auditorium in the United States.) In the 1980s, with the strong commitment of the Heinz family and a very large grant from the foundation established by oil-magnate Claude Worthington Benedum, it became the Benedum Center, part of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, registered with the National Register of Historic Places, and is now an integral part of Pittsburgh’s lively theatre district.

The Pittsburgh Opera’s new music director, Australian Antony Walker, remarked that the Benedum stage is the third largest used for opera in the United States, after Indiana University’s and the Metropolitan Opera’s. The Pittsburgh Opera does not perform operas in repertory, where the sets of two or more operas have to be moved on and off stage for alternating performances.

It certainly has the space to mount a production that is based on complicated unit sets that consume a couple or more days just to put together (see my remarks in this website’s April 2007 archives on San Diego Opera’s complex unit set for its production of Berg’s “Wozzeck”).

The Oxenbould “Butterfly” is a unit set that consists of a center stage area like the wooden platforms seen in a Noh or Kabuki theatre, with three bridges leading to that central space. It is surrounded by high, dark walls. These usually represent the paper walls of a traditional Japanese house, but at key moments in the opera dissolve into a starry sky. Within the lower part of the walls are a series of doors that open and close as the performers move into and out of the scene.

The set’s most striking feature is that it is surrounded on three sides by a water pool, rather like a moat. When I arrived at the theatre for a pre-performance lecture by Christopher Hahn (who provides such a lecture before every performance in a season), stage hands were using swimming pool nets to remove from the water all the flower petals from the previous performance.

Hahn said that it took two days to fill the water tanks that create the pool. This is the type of production that needs a secure stage for a couple of weeks or so, because once this set is in place, it cannot be moved until it is ready to be taken apart.

The Oxenbould creative team sought to give a sense of how strange and enchanting that turn-of-the-20th century Japan would seem to a person from a Western culture. Puccini’s librettists present an Italian’s-eye view of both Japan and of America’s interactions with that country after its opening in 1868.

Oxenbould makes use of stylistic devices that Robert Wilson and others have explored, adopting conventions from Noh and other Japanese theatre. But Oxenbould’s “Butterfly” is a Japanese world that is built upon and reacts to the words of the Italian libretto.

[Below: the entrance of Butterfly (Victoria Villarroel, center) in the Moffatt Oxenbould conception of “Madama Butterfly”.  Goro (Rodell Rosel) is at left, a koken at right; edited image, based on a David Bachman photograph, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Opera.]

The most obvious adaptation from Japanese theatre is one that we are supposed to pretend is not there at all – the presence of five koken, dressed rather like pale Ninjas, who participate in the drama in a multitude of ways throughout the evening.

The koken involve themselves in the personal care of the characters of the drama, much as a valet or chambermaid might – taking Pinkerton’s officer’s cap and Sharpless’ hat, removing Butterfly’s red outer cloak to reveal her blue kimono, bringing Suzuki and Butterfly baskets of flowers to strew, setting up Butterfly’s mirror so Suzuki can arrange her mistress’ hair.

As will be described below, Oxenbould has borrowed other ideas from Japanese theater for the production, but the central drama essentially is in line with Puccini’s instincts. I suspect that the opera would not have enjoyed its century plus of incomparable success without the extended love music of the first act.

A century later we might dismiss Pinkerton as a kind of sex tourist paying to exploit a young woman in an Asian country. Oxenbould’s concept was that Pinkerton was “in the moment” during the love scenes and has fallen in love with Butterfly. And Puccini’s music convinces us that that indeed is the case. Pinkerton’s music does not suggest dissimulation on his part, while Butterfly is sincere. Rather, these are two people who have fallen for each other.

[Below: Butterfly (here, Hiro Omura) strews flower petals in the expectation of her lover’s return the next morning; resized image of a Jeff Busby photograph for Opera Australia.]


Pittsburgh Opera cast two major singers in the starring roles. It was Victoria Villarroel’s debut at the Pittsburgh Opera in what has become her signature role. Frank Lopardo, in a role debut, was the Pinkerton.

I had seen both artists perform at the San Francisco Opera in the 1990s, Lopardo as Lindoro to Marilyn Horne’s Isabella in Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri” (1992) and as Tonio to Kathleen Battle’s Marie in Donizetti’s “La Fille du Regiment” (1993), Villarroel as a creditable Violetta in an otherwise routine mounting of Verdi’s “La Traviata” (1997).

In the ensuing decade and a half, Lopardo has moved beyond the bel canto repertory, where vocal lightness and agility are absolutely necessary, into roles requiring greater vocal weight. I found him to be a handsome and, at this stage in his career, a vocally impressive Pinkerton.

I am a fan of Earle Patriarco in the light baritone roles of the French repertory (see my review of his Valentin in Gounod’s “Faust” in Houston, hyperlinked below). All of us who are veteran “Butterfly” watchers have their own ideas of what each of the principals should look and sound like, and Patriarco’s youthful appearance and light voice seemed to miss the mark of a role where gravitas is a welcome attribute. I

t appears to me that among the Puccini baritone roles Sharpless needs a voice with a weight somewhere between Marcello in “La Boheme” and Scarpia in “Tosca”, say, like Jack Rance in “La Fanciulla del West”.

However, I concede that opera managements, whether or not they agree with this assessment, appear loathe to use such a baritone to cast Sharpless, in an opera sure to sell out anyway. They will need my fantasy Sharpless for Scarpia or other roles.

To be fair to Patriarco, one can reconceptualize the drama to envision a youthful Sharpless, at the beginning of a civil service career, with the consul job in Nagasaki as a starting place. The Pittsburgh audience appeared not to have my preconceptions on how Sharpless should look and sound. They were as delighted with Patriarco’s Sharpless as I was with his Valentin.

Timed to correspond with conductor Antony Walker’s entrance, three of the koken arrive with luminous globular paper lanterns that they move up and down each side of the stage in patterns, reflected in the water pool. Draped clothes that obscure the wooden stage are raised to reveal Lopardo as Pinkerton in dress Naval blues, dipping his handkerchief into the water to moisten his face. He inspects the property arrangements of Goro, well-acted and sung with consummate musicianship by young Filipino tenor Rodell Rosel.

Patriarco as Sharpless arrives in a white suit vest topped with a long coat to explain why he has a bad feeling about what Pinkerton and Goro have set about to do. The Lopardo/Pinkerton lyrical reply that he is a “Yankee vagibondo” delighted those who appreciate the mellifluous Lopardo sound, while further disquieting Patriarco’s Sharpless.

As we hear the offstage voice of Villarroel’s Butterfly, four panels open with a procession of the women accompanying Butterfly – all of them clad in ceremonial red and engaged in choreographed motions.

We begin to understand Oxenbould’s ideas – the inter-relationships between the principals are generally played realistically, but other elements – such as the relationship between the principals and chorus (who seem to represent “Japanese culture”) – are the Australian’s interpretations of Japanese theatrical conventions.

[Below: the arrival of the Bonze.  From left to right, Goro (Rodell Rosel), Pinkerton (Frank Lopardo), Bonze (Liam Moran) and a koken; edited image, based on David Bachman photograph, courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.]

The libretto’s designated arbiter of Japanese culture is the Bonze, and after his disruptive appearance, as Pinkerton consoles Butterfly with the observation that they are alone in their house, and the world and her uncle are outside, all the screens close. One of the koken helps Pinkerton into his dressing gown while three others form a screen to permit Butterfly to disrobe in privacy.

Then, as Pinkerton begins the “Bimba dagli occhi” duet and the succession of melody upon melody that makes this opera so popular and so special, all the screens rise and the pool is seen reflecting upon green walls. He presses her for an expression of love. When she in time replies that he is the center of the world and she loves him, the koken arrive with trays of lit candles that are placed to float in the water, lighting up the darkness of nightfall.

[Below: Butterfly (Victoria Villarroel) and Pinkerton (Frank Lopardo); edited image, based on David Bachman photograph, courtesy of the Pittsburgh Opera.]

Then the walls dissolve into a deep universe of stars, not on a flat panel at the rear of the stage but using the entire upper stage from front to rear as the celestial firmament. With love transcendent, Villarroel’s obi sash is transformed into a long white veil in which she entwines herself in a long and expressive dance with those figures who represent her Japanese culture.

With one intermission between the first and second acts, the traditional second and third acts are recast as Act II Scenes one and two. The first is conventionally staged, koken notwithstanding, until the incomparable duet “Gettiamo a mani piene” between Butterfly and Suzuki (played by Zheng Cao, surely the reigning artist in this role). All the koken appear with baskets of flowers. They are thrown everywhere, including the water.

When Butterfly and Suzuki exclaim they must be drowned with fragrant floral showers, thousands of petals drop from above. Suzuki and Butterfly’s child, Trouble, splash the water. In their too brief joy, Suzuki and Butterfly even engage in a flower petal fight.

[Below: Butterfly (Victoria Villarroel) prepares for suicide.  Edited image, based on David Bachman photograph, courtesy of Pittsburgh Opera.]

For the vigil, at the end of the second act’s first scene and beginning of its last, Butterfly, Suzuki and Trouble are motionless, facing the audience, on the edge of the stage above the pool. The appearance of Kate Pinkerton, affectingly sung and acted by Katherine Drago, is sufficient for Butterfly to realize that all illusion is dispelled and that her existence is to end. Villarroel’s dignified final scene earned her a standing ovation from the Pittsburgh audience.

Kudos for this elegant performance go to the imaginative Australian design team – Oxenbould, England and Cohen – to a wonderful portrait of Butterfly by Villarroel and a lyrical Pinkerton by Lopardo, Cao’s fully realized Suzuki, and fine conducting by Antony Walker.

Two of the comprimaria, Rosel and Drago, deserved their special mention. As antidote to my reservations about the casting of a baritone I admire in the role of Sharpless, I have hyperlinked my review of Patriarco’s Valentin. Finally, Christopher Hahn deserves mention for the vision and determination to bring an enchanting production to North America.

For my comments on Earle Patriarco’s Valentin, see: A “Faust” Surprise in Houston – January 23, 2007