Manitoba Opera's Madama Butterfly is a timely tale

"Delicate" is the best way to describe this elegant new production of Madama Butterfly from Manitoba Opera, says reviewer Lara Rae.

'Woke' production invites questions about race, gender politics

Cio-Cio San (Hiromi Omura) and Lieutenant Pinkerton (David Pomeroy) have a tete-a-tete on their wedding night. Manitoba Opera's production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly runs at the Centennial Concert Hall in Winnipeg Nov. 18, 21 and 24. (Robert Tinker/Submitted)

"Delicate," is how the monstrous rogue Pinkerton describes Cio-Cio San — a.k.a Madama Butterfly, the 15-year-old he arranges to marry — in the opera bearing her name.

And delicate is the best way to describe this elegant new production of Madama Butterfly from Manitoba Opera.

Local audiences are treated to two international sopranos: Hiromi Omura as the titular Madama Butterfly and mezzo-soprano Nina Yoshida Nelsen as Suziki, her confidant and maid.
Cio-Cio San (Hiromi Omura) prepares for ritual suicide (Seppuku or Hari-kiri). (Robert Tinker/Submitted)

The men, however, are local. Gregory Dahl plays Sharples, the U.S. consul with conscience, and David Pomeroy plays the odious Pinkerton with an easy charm.  Here is a man untroubled by his behaviour until it brings about the death of the Japanese teenager he so cynically betrays.

Manitoba Opera is a "woke" company so every effort has been made to soften the racist edges of this production and having two Asian leads helps to remove the most melodramatic of Asian cliches from the show.
Cio-Cio San (Hiromi Omura) and Lieutenant Pinkerton (David Pomeroy) share a toast with the women in their wedding party, the Manitoba Opera chorus. (Robert Tinker/Submitted)

The set is beautiful and natural: a Japanese villa with fusuma doors that slide open to expose a still lake and changing sky. The costumes are colourful and the wigs a marvel, and although the production is in many ways traditional it's also very beautiful. 

The story is well-timed. In the lobby, recent news stories were referenced as audience-members disgested the tale of a man of power abusing for his own lust the feelings and dignity of a very young woman whose only crime was to trust.

The opera contains some of the most sumptuous and sensual music Puccini ever wrote. Un Bel di vermo, the showcase aria of Act 2, stands with Nessun Dorma at the pinnacle of operatic tear-jerkers. But Con onur muore ("to die with honour") which Omura sings with a delicacy, was — for this reviewer — the highlight of this exceptional show.

The orchestra as usual were note-perfect, nuanced, and outstanding. They bring something new to even the most overplayed of scores. 

Opening night saw the entire audience rise quickly at the curtain and cheer loud and long. 
American consul Sharpless (Gregory Dahl) solemnly looks on as a grief-ridden Suzuki (Nina Yoshida-Nelsen) meets Kate Pinkerton and comes to terms with the fact that the American couple want to take Cio-Cio San and the lieutenant's daughter away. (Robert Tinker/Submitted)

Manitoba Opera's production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly runs at the Centennial Concert Hall in Winnipeg Nov. 18, 21 and 24.

In a clever seasonal tie-in, there is a small fair of lovely Japanese crafts and opera swag for sale in the lobby and hallway.


  • A previous version of this story said Madama Butterfly is a co-production with four other opera companies. In fact, this production is not a co-production.
    Nov 21, 2017 3:48 PM CT


Lara Rae


Lara Rae is a stand-up comic, comedy writer and the former artistic director of the Winnipeg Comedy Festival.