A rolling expanse of hilly green erupts from the harbour’s edge. At its rear, a grove of bamboo stands sentinel, unmoving in the breeze. At the fore, a horde of people dressed in white make final preparations for the marriage of B F Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San: Madama Butterfly.
The third Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour heralds the collaboration of Opera Australia and Spanish creative team La Fura dels Baus. The result is an inspired reimagining of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.
Following the disastrous negativity of the 1904 premiere, Puccini made significant changes to Madama Butterfly, and it is now considered a staple of the operatic repertoire. The enthusiastic reception and ovation following the current season’s opening night is testament to the production’s modern-day popularity.
Originally set in 1904, director Àlex Ollé has transported this production to an unspecified contemporary age. The transition is smooth, perhaps because the story’s main theme transcends time. Ollé’s stylised setting can be baffling though, as not all elements (both aesthetic and textual) have been consistently contemporised.
While they are significant to the overall plot, very few narrative details sustain Act I. Even with Puccini’s numerous revisions, the production’s opening is stagnant. It is curious that no such sequence exists in David Belasco’s 1900 play Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan, upon which the opera is partially based. In contrast, Act 2 and 3 are riveting. The pace quickens and the narrative has more direction.
Hiromi Omura reprises Madama Butterfly’s titular role, having performed during Opera Australia’s most recent Sydney and Melbourne seasons. Omura delivers the role with great depth, and deservedly received the loudest applause. The vigil and suicide scenes are executed particularly well, and the opera’s most famous aria, ‘Un Bel di, Vedremo’, is sung with a characteristic iridescent beauty.
Georgy Vasiliev as B F Pinkerton, Anna Yun as Suzuki and Michael Honeyman as Sharpless are also praiseworthy.
The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra is in fine form (Brian Castles-Onion conductor, Aubrey Murphy guest concertmaster). Several missed cues and an isolated burst of noticeable feedback can be forgiven, considering the outdoor acoustics are surprisingly lush (Tony David Cray).
The harbour location is undeniably breathtaking. Each element of the alfresco theatre rightfully exploits the surrounding landscape: the red-carpet promenade, the oriental-style décor, the numerous bars and their view. Disguised as a ‘natural’ continuation of Mrs Macquaries Point, the mountainous set design (Alfons Flores) is just as sympathetic. Flores spectacularly utilises the stage and infrastructure during Act II, when the mountain is transformed into the barren urbanscape of Cio-Cio-San’s incomplete home. While their appearance is fleeting, the glowing orbs, sun and moon, are mainstays of the overall aesthetic. On the contrary, the flowing red cloth of Act I may have been an oversight, given its untamed temperament during the wedding scene.
Madama Butterfly is the most fabulous of spectacles, and is commendable on a number of levels (not least for introducing new audiences to opera). Thankfully though, the glitz of this Handa Opera production does not supersede the work’s original power or intention.
Opera Australia presents
Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour
Director Àlex Ollé
Venue: Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquaries Point, Sydney (off Mrs Macquaries Road)
Dates: March 21 – April 12, 2014
Tickets: $79 – $350
Bookings: opera.org.au | 02 9318 8200 | ticketmaster.com.au | 1300 723 038