Life goes on. So let us leave Janes aside for now and speak instead of Jane. Parkin, that is. I've been a bit of a Jane Parkin fan ever since she showed up to the McDonald's Aria final last year and sang "O marno to je". I mean, who in the world thinks of singing Rusalka's other aria? Very classy. My esteem increased on seeing this video. But with no other opportunities to hear her, I've had to content myself with declaring her my Favourite Chorus Member. Which is why, when I discovered she was singing Butterfly for Oz Opera, I thought it was high time I faced my fear of outer suburbs, and went.
In my twenty-two months in Sydney, I have been to Parramatta exactly thrice. Once to catch a bus to Kangaroo Valley. Once to be brainwashed by Myer. And then last weekend, for Madama Butterfly. The third trip — the only one which caused me to see more of Parramatta than the station and the Westfield — has proved the most rewarding. There's a press quote for you. "Jane Parkin: she's worth going to Parramatta for."
Jokes aside, she really was. She was even worth the mildly harrowing trip back home again. As was the rest of the production. This is not some ramshackle touring show. It's directed by no less a figure than John Bell, of the Bell Shakespeare Company. He does a pretty gorgeous job of it, too. He's moved the action (as have others before him) to 1940s Nagasaki, which as updates go, is a pretty innocuous and logical one. There's nothing wildly revolutionary in his staging, but there are a few imaginative flourishes. Once married, Cio Cio San, understandably enough, wants to be a Good American Wife, so she dresses like one — until suicide time, she's adorable in a pretty pink dress. She plasters the paper screens with clippings of American ads, movie stars and comic books; and again, they're visible until her very Japanese suicide, at which point she shuts them away.
Costumes (designed by the late Jennie Tate) are beautiful. After whites and soft pinks, the blood red kimono which Butterfly wears to kill herself has a stunning effect. Tate designed the set too, and it's another little triumph — simple and portable, without looking simple and portable. And since you couldn't possibly tour fifty million towns with an actual toddler in tow, Sorrow takes the form of an exquisitely made puppet by Al Martinez Studios. Initially I wasn't convinced this would work — Butterfly and Suzuki just seemed to be carrying a doll — but the action of this puppet is amazing. When Butterfly sets him down to pray, his little leg slides out all by itself, and he's so skilfully manipulated by the two women that he comes to life.
Jane is a beautiful Butterfly in every sense. It's hard to tell in a small theatre, with reduced orchestra, whether she'd be a big theatre Butterfly. On this scale, though, she's a winner. Bright, shimmery tone, sensitive phrasing and — vital for this role I think — a sense of humour. Butterfly has some really funny lines in the midst of all the trauma, and Jane does a good job of exploring both sides. My programme tells me she has a background in acting as well as music: it shows. And even if her singing wasn't completely seamless, it was memorable and distinctive. She put her own stamp on it, which is more than can be said for some recent performances at the Big House.
But in a way, the revelation of the evening was David Corcoran. I knew what I wanted from Jane. From David, I didn't know what to expect. When he won the McDonald's Aria by unanimous decision last year, I confess I was surprised. But now I get it. He sounded fabulous and sang with such style. No wonder he's a 2009 Young Artist; I just hope that the tenor drought OA is facing doesn't prompt them to force him into anything too early. Given time and space to develop, he could prove to be one of the finest tenors this country has produced in a while. His stage presence is much improved since that Aria final too, thank heavens. I can't believe I'm saying it, but he actually made me sort of like Pinkerton. No mean feat.
Oz Opera casting is all terribly egalitarian. Principal roles are double cast, so it's share and share alike and there's no single prima donna. (Or primo uomo.) This must be a lesson in humility in the case of Butterfly and Pinkerton — when not starring, they're on chorus duty. So theoretically, I suppose, everyone is on an equal footing but I can't help thinking I saw the A cast. Which was the point, of course: I made sure I'd be seeing Jane and David before I went. Casting in the supporting cast, meanwhile, is basically fine. Best of them were the two mezzos, Karen van Spall as Kate Pinkerton and Victoria Lambourn as a very touching Suzuki. Brendon Wickham clearly was having a ball as Goro but I found his voice less than appealing; Ian Cousins is an experienced Sharpless but a little bit dull. Because it's made up of the solo cast, the chorus only consists of six people, which takes a bit of getting used to. The Humming Chorus sounds frankly odd, I think because you can hear each individual voice rather than a single, massed sound.
And speaking of reduction — this is Butterfly as chamber piece, with a 12 piece orchestra. You do lose a lot of the richness of the score with this arrangement, there's no getting away from that; but once my ear had adjusted, it worked pretty well. I can't say I'd want to hear it like this all the time, but once in a while is interesting.
No surtitles, so this production is sung in English. I'm happy with this. Especially since Peter Hutchinson's translation (
which appears to have been done specifically for Oz Opera - can anyone confirm/deny? commissioned for Welsh National Opera in 1978 - see comment below) is so well done. At many key points I thought it was superior to the one used by Chandos Opera in English for their Butterfly. I did chuckle slightly at what seemed to be a slight PC-ifying, though — Butterfly's age ("quindici netti") became "almost exactly sixteen", which just quietly shifts her up to the age of consent. Perhaps they were afraid of Bill Henson zealots? (edit: Not exactly - again, see comment.) The only real clumsiness I noted were a few unmetrical contractions: the "chi sara, chi sara?" and "che dira, che dira?" of "Un bel di" were translated as "Who d'you think it will be?" and "What d'you think he will say?", which haven't quite the same ring. Otherwise, though, an excellent translation which managed to retain the depth and wit of the original and, with the help of very good diction from the singers, to be understood pretty much word for word.
I just think it's a shame Oz Opera doesn't venture into the cities. This production has so much to recommend it — especially with the cast configured as it was for me — and I suspect there a lot of people who would love it who will miss out. Too bad for them. Meanwhile, if you're on the Oz Opera circuit or near it, seek this one out. I don't go to Parramatta lightly, but for this show, and for Jane, I'd go again.