If you read this blog regularly, you probably read an earlier incarnation of this post. In it, I talked about what a fitting farewell this performance was, since I had been given to believe that it was Cheryl Barker's last Butterfly ever. But, as you'll see if you read the comments, I've been reliably informed that this is not the case. Opera Australia's subscription booklet — which I've just checked to make sure I didn't invent the whole thing — says "Cheryl Barker recreates the title role for one last season" but evidently that means something else. So, rather than perpetuate a misconception, I've amended this post to reflect the truth. It's worth noting, though, that I've actually changed very little . The fact that it was not a farewell doesn't make this performance any less exceptional. I actually think I might be even more impressed now, discovering that the special charge which Monday night's performance carried — and there definitely was something different about it, farewell or not — was not, after all, the product of special circumstances, but just of Cheryl Barker's limitless artistry. Had it indeed been her farewell, it would have been a perfect one. That it was not; that it was, in a sense, "just another Butterfly" — and that there are more to come — is an indication of just how special she is.
Act One was business as usual. What a terribly misleading sentence that is on its own. You have to understand (and if you have had the stomach to read parts I to VIII of these diaries, perhaps you already do) that business as usual for Cheryl Barker is neither business, nor usual. It's art, and it's extraordinary, and it's freshly created every single time. The predictable aspects of her artistry are those which make her so exciting: her gutsy, gorgeous singing, her responsive acting, her vivid self assurance, her capacity for spontaneity without chaos. All that is standard Cheryl.
That's what Act One was like. A Cio Cio San as good as they come, as beautifully wrought as Cheryl's Cio Cio San always is, and not quite like any of her others, because, (un)like snowflakes, no two have ever been exactly the same. Perhaps she was a slightly more fragile and serious Cio Cio San this time than the last. Actually, the differences from performance to performance are more complex than any pair of adjectives I can throw at them. At any rate, she was wonderful in the way I expected her to be wonderful, all the tiny revelatory surprises included. Since I thought it was her farewell performance, I couldn't help watching her with that in mind, wondering if the added emotional charge of a farewell affecting her performance. Sometimes I fancied I could hear or see that it was, but it could just as easily have been the power of suggestion on my part — and now I know that it must have been.
Still, I think a turning point came in "Un bel dì". Near the beginning — I couldn't tell you now on which phrase — something changed. I have heard her sing this aria so many times, and while no two renditions have been identical, they've all borne a sisterly resemblance. Not this one. On that pivotal line, whichever line it was, her voice was suddenly different. It didn't crack or falter, but it softened where it had never softened before. I couldn't swear to it — she's such an actress that it's often hard to tell — but I had the idea she had begun to cry. And everything seemed to change. Colours, phrasing, expression, the look in her eyes, the way she moved, the whole soul of the aria — everything. I can't describe the change in any way that will make sense. All I know is that for once this aria — an aria I thought I knew my way around and which, as beautiful as her rendition of it unfailingly is, has never been my number one most devastating Butterfly moment — had me sitting quite literally openmouthed and in copious tears. "Un bel dì" has never done that to me. Not once. Ever. And it did. It was, with apologies for the egregious cliché, like hearing it for the very first time.
Whatever had wrought the change —and I now have less idea than ever what that might have been— it held fast for the rest of the performance, which grew from merely (!) exquisite to (yes, I will stick to this description) valedictory. And we are not talking about a soprano sobbing her way through a performance, although that would be special enough. Yes, there were a lot of tears, but there were a lot of other things going on too — an overall impression of heightened, raw emotion, in the highs as much as the lows, and of a strange, paradoxical combination of increased vulnerability alongside blazing newfound courage. She seems to have mastered the art of abandonment without recklessness, of giving herself up utterly to any given role and exploring all its vocal and dramatic extremes without veering into that scary territory of potential derailment. Her commitment is always thrilling — and I didn't think she could take it any further, but somehow she did. It seemed nothing was off limits.
And do you know what I love? That she did all of this without turning the night into anything except a totally riveting performance of Madama Butterfly. There was no self indulgence — there never is. Whatever the added emotion, if such there was, it was all put to the service of Cio Cio San. With or without the mistaken idea of a farewell in mind, I doubt anybody could have been unmoved by this. From the most assiduous attendee (ie me) to the most casual tourist — from the devoted fan with a dozen Cheryl Butterflies to compare (me again...) to the novitiate who'd never heard her name until that night — this was a Butterfly with the capacity to devastate anybody.
So it's over. Tutto è finito, for now. This has been a wonderful trip. You'd think ten performances would have exhausted me, and if I were sensible, perhaps that would be true. I should be all Butterflied (Butterflown?) out, but instead, every time I hear this opera, I adore it, and its heroine, a little bit more. That's down to Cheryl. She wasn't technically my first Butterfly but she was without a doubt the first who made me understand and love her. And now I am a Butterfly addict: Leontyne,Mirella, Renata, Maria, Renata, Antoinette, Daniela, Patricia, and the list goes on. Even Angela, soon. They might not all be singers I otherwise adore, but for as long as they're singing Cio Cio San, I'm putty in their hands. Cheryl will always be my favourite, though: and as wonderful as it was to experience what I thought was a glorious farewell, I'm even happier to learn that I don't have to say goodbye yet to this very special Butterfly.