In good news (of sorts) I noticed that Deutsche Oper Berlin has announced a semi-staging of a reduced version of Das Rheingold outdoors on the company’s parking deck. Small steps, but something at least. Meanwhile, with most of the opera world still firmly in streaming mode I thought I’d take a look at an offering from the home team and recommend my favourite Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour of all time. An opera company taking a different approach is Belgium’s intrepid La Monnaie who are posting new operas online in batches of six. And while we are talking bold programming, the American Symphony Orchestra has posted the finest staging I saw in the US last year: Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s epic Das Wunder der Heliane.

Butterfly over the Harbour
Opera Australia's Madama Butterfly

Opera Australia has been adding to their OA | TV on Demand offering by regular postings of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour productions with three currently available for free viewing. It seemed the impossible dream: to create a show on Sydney Harbour that combined artistic integrity with populist spectacle, but 2014’s Madama Butterfly hit the nail squarely on the head.

Àlex Ollé’s stunning staging was simply one of the best productions I’ve seen, a feast for the eye yet managing to zoom in on the human dimension to create moments of enormous emotional impact. Yes, it’s an update; yes it’s radio-miked and amplified; yes, it’s at the mercy of the elements (the wind on opening night threatened to carry off its fair share of set and costumes), but this handsome interpretation by Spanish theatre company La Fura dels Baus has that rare ability to appeal to the once-a-year-champagne-and-fireworks brigade while giving the seasoned opera buff plenty of food for thought.

Ollé’s big challenge, he said, was how to integrate the landscape of Sydney Harbour into a socio-political reading of the opera in order to anchor it in the present. It helps, of course, that the libretto makes reference to the “beautiful spot, the sea, the harbour”. Set designer Alfons Flores came up with a larger stage than in previous years, a giant grassy hill floating on the water like a small island about to make landfall. Like the Domain of which it is a tiny annex, this tiny scrap of earth was managing to resist the bulldozers, a last remaining scrap of paradise – that is, until property developer B F Pinkerton gets his hands on it. Like so many foreign investors, he throws himself into a culture he barely understands, deciding he’ll buy himself not just a piece of prime real estate but a bride as well. That’s all the setup you need for what, intellectually contemporary as it appears, is ultimately a respectful and truthful working out of Puccini’s tragedy.

The Butterfly is Hiromi Omura, a Japanese soprano with a mature voice (more Tebaldi than Freni, say), but one that’s equipped with all the notes. Russian tenor Georgy Vasiliev is her Pinkerton, capturing the thoughtless, calculating side of the character to perfection. Michael Honeyman is a sympathetic, dignified Sharpless and Anna Yun is an equally supportive Suzuki. This was a great night of theatre, and a vindication of the idea that for those seeking spectacle laced with intimacy, creativity and drama, you can have your open-air operatic cake and eat it too.

Korngold Resurrected
Das Wunder der Heliane. Photo © Stephanie Berger

Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Das Wunder der Heliane (The Miracle of Heliane) was one of the victims of Entartete Musik, or “degenerate music,” the term used by the Nazis to define work by mostly Jewish composers whose art they wished to disparage as part of their racist political agenda. Korngold’s magnum opus, set in an unidentified Totalitarian state, was just the kind of thing that got under their skin.

With its massive orchestration, Heliane creates a lush, sensual sound world allied to a potentially troublesome Expressionist plotline that promises musical thrills but potential dramatic pitfalls for anyone brave enough to attempt to mount it. So, full marks to Fisher Center at Bard College who gave the U.S. premiere in 2019. Christian Räth’s clear-sighted, ravishing production, with opulent, yet coherent musical direction from Leon Botstein leading the 85-strong American Symphony Orchestra and an outstanding chorus, proved the opera to be a work for the ages and little short of a masterpiece.

The action is set in a bleak state lorded over by The Ruler. Enter The Stranger, a young man whose doctrine of love has landed him in prison with a death sentence. When Heliane, The Ruler’s wife, visits to bring him comfort, The Stranger asks to see her hair, her feet, and finally her naked body, all of which she duly offers. She refuses, however, to give herself to him in love, but when her husband finds her in the cell, he accuses her of adultery anyway and demands her trial. Arraigned before the seven judges of the kingdom, The Stranger kills himself and The Ruler now demands that Heliane must undergo a trial: if she is innocent, she will be able to bring The Stranger back from the dead.

Räth’s thoughtful and profoundly moving production wisely leaves that up to each of us to decide in a visually arresting final ten minutes that forces no particular interpretation without cheating the work’s spiritual complexities. Räth is a director who really seems to understand what the music ‘means’ and in particular how that can be used to clarify and illuminate the densely expressionistic storyline. His timeless setting combines visual echoes of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis with modernisms such as dressing The Stranger in a Guantanamo-style orange jumpsuit.

Lithuanian soprano Ausrine Stundyte has all the notes (just) and is a magnetic performer. As The Stranger, Canadian tenor Daniel Brenna also acts well, though his voice a little strained. Best of all is Alfred Walker who makes a three-dimensional figure out of The Ruler.

Available until July 11

Six of the best with frittes
Olivier Py's Lohengrin

Based in Brussels, Belgium’s premiere opera house La Monnaie / De Munt has an enviable reputation for intriguing new stagings and unconventional programming. They also realise that many of us can’t just tune in at 7:30 pm for a one-off streaming. Their solution has been to post six or seven operas each month with 30 days to work your way through them. This is the third round and it’s a typically imaginative and eclectic mix of favourites in original productions and tempting rarities.

Among the ‘standards’ are Romeo Castellucci’s visually ravishing Magic Flute. If you enjoyed the “Italian stage philosopher” and his take on Mozart’s Requiem at this year’s Adelaide Festival this will be for you. A thoughtful interrogation that scratches the folksy surface of Mozart’s opera to reveal deeper questions of ethics and aesthetics. There’s also a deliciously ditzy L’Elisir d’Amore set on a beach that serves elixirs as part of cocktail hour and Olivier Py’s 2018 Lohengrin, a production that filters the legend of the Swan Knight through the lens of Wagner’s political and revolutionary ideas. This was the staging that Opera Australia had to cancel when COVID-19 struck and well worth a look.

Rarities include a modern dress retelling of Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict – itself a retelling of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing, and a fabulous take on Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel from the French master of the visual satire, Laurent Pelly. And finally, if you are after something completely different, try Orfeo and Majnun, a love story with a score that merges Western sounds with Oriental music. Essentially a community project intended to reflect the cultural diversity of Brussels, the three composers, two librettists and two directors collaboration was hailed as ground-breaking.

All productions are free to watch until June 30.