Mrs Macquarie’s Point, Sydney Harbour
March 21, 2014

It seemed the impossible dream: to create an operatic production on Sydney Harbour that combines artistic integrity and populist spectacle. La Traviata in 2012 certainly offered spectacle, and Emma Matthews raised the stakes with a much-praised central performance. Last year’s gloomy Carmen, however, struggled, lacking intimacy and with visuals veering off all too frequently into tacky territory. But this year, “By George, I think they’ve got it!”

Àlex Ollé’s stunning staging for Opera Australia is one of the best productions of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly 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 the geniuses from Spanish theatre company La Fura dels Baus, has that all-too-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 says, 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 opera makes immediate reference to the “beautiful spot, the sea, the harbour”. Set designer Alfons Flores has come 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 is managing to resist the bulldozers, a last remaining piece of paradise – that is, until property developer B F Pinkerton gets his hands on it. Like so many foreign investors, Pinkerton throws himself into a culture he barely understands, deciding he’ll buy himself not just a piece of prime real estate but a youthful 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.

Flores’ green hill, surmounted with a bamboo grove, is stunningly lit throughout by Berlin-based lighting designer Alexander Koppelmann, who manages to create ravishing pictures galore. The moment when Butterfly and her friends emerge from the trees is heart-stopping; the rising of the giant luminous moon from out of the waters of the harbour transfixing. For the second act, the set becomes a real life building site as giant cranes swing into action and the grass is covered to be replaced with a half-finished housing estate. This is all achieved in character and would almost be worth skipping the interval drinks to watch!

Ollé has bags of original ideas and isn’t afraid to use them. From the busy horde of silent wedding caterers with their hygiene facemasks, to the representation of Butterfly’s uncle, The Bonze, as a yakuza gangster, this production has plenty to keep you engaged. The spectacle brief certainly isn’t ignored – the wedding is enhanced with an appropriate burst of fireworks, the US consul arrives in a limo, the Pinkertons return in a taxi, and Yamadori rocks up in a power boat from somewhere around the headland. But Ollé never forgets that this is a story about a young woman and that she needs always to be the focus of everything going on around her.

His Butterfly is Hiromi Omura, a Japanese soprano whose recent roles include Norma and Sieglinde, and who is very much at home with the character, having performed it worldwide (including last year in Sydney and Melbourne). It’s a mature voice (more Tebaldi than Freni, say), but one that’s equipped with all the notes and boy can it soar when it needs to. Indeed she’s particularly strong above the stave where she’s able to maintain a creamy sound with little sense of effort.

Her arrival, cocooned in white like an echo of the sails of the Opera House, is cleverly managed to show that she and her friends find this ‘traditional’ dress up all a bit of a laugh. The moment after her uncle has smashed up her wedding and she pathetically takes off her Japanese wig is deeply pitiful, while the reveal of her butterfly body tattoo carries a substantial erotic charge. Her later disclosure of her newly adopted US garb is certainly a coup de theatre but coming on the top note of Un bel dì, it competes with the music – the only foot Ollé puts wrong all evening. By the end she’s able to absolutely nail the final scene, the forcible removal of the child by Suzuki making for an intensely emotional and unforgettable moment.

The young Russian tenor Georgy Vasiliev is her Pinkerton, capturing the thoughtless, calculating side of the character to perfection. His second act admission that he “can’t bear this squalid ruin” is a way too late admission of the havoc he’s caused to the land but does little to redeem him in light of the human cost. Vocally he’s on fine form. It’s a focussed, heroic sound with all the top notes in place, blending well with Omura in Bimba, dagli occhi. At times he can afford to vary the tone a bit more and try a bit less – he can probably let the sound engineers take some of the strain.

Among the supporting cast, Michael Honeyman is a sympathetic, dignified Sharpless, although the voice sounds a little tired. Anna Yun is an equally supportive Suzuki singing with firm tone, though the microphones rather accentuate her vibrato. Graeme Macfarlane’s ‘Thai-bride’ retailing Goro is the least flattered by the amplification, the speakers relaying every crack and wobble in the voice. Gennadi Dubinski, Sitiveni Talei and Celeste Lazrenko do sterling service as the ranting Bonze, a preening Yamadori and a Kate Pinkerton who looks like she’s never seen as much muck in a place as she does when she pokes her nose into Butterfly’s dwelling. The chorus are excellent, with a delightful collection of up-for-a-freebie characters on display at the wedding.

From the concealed orchestral accommodation, Brian Castles-Onion conducts a thoroughly efficient reading of the score. The sound on opening night took a little getting used to – too boxy at times, with voices favoured over orchestral detail. The ear adjusts, but those familiar with Puccini’s colourful orchestration may feel they miss out at times.

Nevertheless, don’t let any of the above minor quibbles put you off. This is 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.

Madama Butterfly runs at Mrs Macquarie’s Point until April 13.

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