What is it exactly that makes opera great? Is it the story, the music, the singers or maybe it’s the sumptuous sets and costumes? Perhaps it’s the subtle aroma of the culture that created it that lies within? Could it be that great opera is like the indescribable urge you have to smell a freshly opened bag of Italian coffee beans? I mean you never really feel the same urge to stuff your nostrils into a jar of instant now do you?
Well, to be honest, I’d be the first person to admit that I don’t have a clue about what makes a good opera great. I’ve never studied opera and I haven’t even seen that many of them. In fact, I’d go as far to say that it’s probably a dead certainty that I know even less about opera than you do - which I know is an incredibly odd thing for a reviewer to admit, but there you go, I’ve said it. You (on the other hand) probably know quite a bit about opera, don’t you? You know your Bellini from your Puccini for instance, am I right?
So, tell me. How do you feel when people mess with the classics? Say, just for example, that someone takes what is probably the most famous (and certainly the most frequently performed) opera in the world, Madame Butterfly and decides that in order for a regional audience to appreciate it, that it would be best to do away with the time-honoured Italian version and spruce it up with an English translation. Surely you wouldn’t mind that, not if it gets bums on seats, right? And after all people won’t be able to understand it in Italian, will they? Because it’s important for opera to be ‘understandable’ isn’t it? Well, that’s the thinking behind Oz Opera’s current production of Madame Butterfly directed by John Bell which is just wrapping up its short run at the Riverside theatre in Parramatta before it slips out of town to take a little bit of ‘culture’ to regional NSW.
And it’s not a bad production per se - that is, if your understanding of what opera is resembles something along the lines of soap meets musical. The story, which revolves around a Japanese bride named Butterfly (played on a rotating schedule by Elisa Wilson and Jane Parkin) who marries a US naval lieutenant known as Pinkerton (David Corcoran/Jason Wasley) at the end of World War II in Japan is full of all the romance and tragedy that anyone who tunes in to Days Of Our Lives can relate to and relish.
The performances are adequate but there’s nothing outstanding here. The set designed by the late Jennie Tate and realised by Julie Lynch is effective and provides the necessary simplicity required of a touring production. But the sweetest flourishes come from lighting designer Matt Scott who makes the backdrop come to life with dancing pastel cherry blossoms.
The singing itself is understandable, so Oz Opera have achieved their primary goal, but any of the authentic aroma that the Italian lyrics of Lugi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa would have provided is sadly lost and Puccini’s score cuts a lonely figure without them.
By curtain close I was left feeling hollow and not because of Butterfly’s untimely end. I began to contemplate the reasoning behind this English-only approach to touring opera productions and it left me wondering, if it’s such a great idea, then why hasn’t it been taken up by their parent company Opera Australia? That is, if it really doesn’t make a difference to the quality of the production. I mean, you wouldn’t mind would you if you rolled up in your fancy frock with your great Aunt Betty to see THE opera at THE Opera House in Sydney and it was in English? Come on - who are they kidding? You’d be outraged and so would she. Aunt Betty’s dentures would be out of her mouth and down the aisle much faster than you could say orthodontist.
So if productions like Oz Opera’s Madame Butterfly are our cultural gift from ‘the big smoke’ to regional Australians, then why aren’t we giving them what we ourselves like to see? And what kind of assumptions are we making about people who live in the country? Perhaps its time to take a fresh look at what culture in the arts really means. If it’s just about exposing people to things they can already ‘understand’ then surely we’ve missed the boat!
Oz Opera in association with Riverside Theatres presents
Venue: Riverside Theatres, Cnr Market and Church Streets, Parramatta
Dates: Friday Aug 15 - Monday 18 August
Times: Fri, Sat, Mon at 8pm
Tickets: Mon Eve Adults $52, Conc & Groups $47, 30 & Under $39, 16 & Under $34
Fri & Sat Eve Adults $55, Conc & Groups $50, 30 & Under $42, 16 & Under $37
Riversidesaver Prices: Mon Eve Adults $44, Conc & Groups $39, 30 & Under $34, 16 & Under $29 Fri & Sat Eve Adults $47, Conc & Groups $42, 30 & Under $37, 16 & Under $32
Bookings: Riverside Box Office 02 8839 3399 or www.riversideparramatta.com.au