Opera Reviews
18 November 2018
Untitled Document
Svetlana Katchour wins our hearts and minds
by Michael Sinclair
Puccini: Madame Butterfly
Auckland Philharmonia
Auckland Town Hall
7 August 2009

Puccini's Madame Butterfly may not seem like the most obvious choice for an opera to perform in concert. Much of the attraction of the work lies in the stage business that transports us to a romanticised view of nineteenth century Japan with all the trappings of orientalism to feast the eye over the course of the drama. The question was simple: how would the work fare when all these visual aspects have been stripped away?

The result, in this performance by the Auckland Philharmonia, turned out to be disappointing in some respects and triumphant in others.

What the concert did have was a leading lady who was able to transport us into the world of a 15-year-old geisha and tell the story with little or no scenery, props or costumes to help her. Crimean soprano, Svetlana Katchour obviously came prepared. Unlike the other singers she sang without a score and despite the limitations of the concert setting she acted out the role with great aplomb, with sufficiently considered gestures and movements to add to her vocal interpretation. She was the only character where some thought had gone into costuming: the white outfit in act one looked like a cross between a kimono and a western style wedding dress, while in act two she changed into a black evening gown more in tune with her sombre mood.

While Katchour rightly won the hearts of the audience through her fragile, vulnerable portrayal of Cio-Cio-San her singing proved to be a little underdone. Partly to blame here was the unusual balance between the orchestra and the singers, which often meant that the singers were swamped by the weight of orchestral sound that was coming from behind them. So, to be fair, Katchour's interpretation might have had more impact in a theatre with the correct balance between stage and pit, but on this occasion what was needed was a singer who could carry the orchestral sound with more vocal authority. While Katchour couldn't quite scale the big Puccinian moments this was nevertheless a relatively small price to pay for an otherwise engaging performance.

Most of the other characters were lost in the translation from theatre to concert platform. It was impossible to distinguish the Japanese characters from the Western ones (some minor costuming details would have helped here) - Anna Pierard's blond hair and statuesque demeanour made her look more like Isolde's maid Brangäne than Cio-Cio-San's devoted servant Suzuki, although she sang effectively. Patrick Power was an ardent Pinkerton with a good sized, ringing voice that had Puccini stamped all over it. Jared Holt's solid baritone worked well for Sharpless, while Richard Greager took every opportunity he could with the smaller role of Goro. The cast was rounded out ably with New Zealand singers.

Ekehard Stier led the Auckland Philharmonia in a spirited performance, although a little more care could have been taken to achieve a better balance with his singers. Nevertheless the orchestral forces did full justice to Puccini's bittersweet score, particularly towards the end of the opera where its doom laden themes were strongly delivered.

All in all, a bit of a mixed bag. The capacity audience certainly revelled in the opportunity to hear this popular work, but let's hope that next year will see the APO taking a more adventurous path with their opera in concert presentation.

Text: © Michael Sinclair
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