REVIEW: Opera Australia's Madama Butterfly Is A Brilliant Outdoor Spectacular

Madama Butterfly
Handa Opera On Sydney Harbour
Mrs Macquarie’s Point, March 21

The wedding scene in Opera Australia’s Madama Butterfly. Photo: James Morgan

If BF Pinkerton wasn’t just a character in Puccini’s tragic opera, he’d probably be appearing before a Royal Commission right now, since Cio-Cio San, his geisha-turned-bride-to-be is just 15, a revelation no less shocking when sung by the extraordinary soprano Hiromi Omura in the title role.

His next stop would probably be ICAC, since this lush new Opera Australia production by Spanish company La Fura dels Baus ditches Pinkerton’s well-worn naval dress for the sharp suits of an oleaginous property developer keen to pave paradise in an oh-so-very-Sydney story.

When Puccini’s opera debuted at La Scala 110 years years ago, it was nearly booed off stage. At Friday’s opening night in this three-week season it received a well-deserved standing ovation.

This is the third year of Opera Australia’s outdoor extravaganza, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, and its best. It’s quite a production, with a virtual village of bars and restaurants surrounding the terraced seating and floating set. But the most wonderful thing is the magic the city itself brings to the show. Sydney’s skyline becomes an extended part of the stage, the Opera House and Harbour bridge loom through the (real!) bamboo grove that forms part of the first act.

It’s unexpected small things too, such as the bats squabbling in the trees behind the audience like a Greek chorus chattering about Pinkerton’s callous behaviour, and the fresh nor-easter which lifted the red silk curtains in the wedding scene making them flutter parallel to the stage in such a mesmerising fashion that they’re far more interesting that half the things you’ll see in the Sydney Biennale.

And being Sydney, of course there are fireworks, plus a boat and cars, a giant floating, rising sun, dangling full moon and the cranes on set make it blend in perfectly with the city skyline. This Butterfly is at one with the city, but also reminds you of how ephemeral and fragile such moments of bliss can be.

Photo: James Morgan

The opera opens with a grassy knoll being surveyed for the Pinkerton Development Company and two not-so-subtle screens saying “Paradise Lost” (which were ditched, literally, later on, due to the fresh breeze).

Designer Alex Olle from La Fura dels Baus has given the tale fresh resonance and the themes Puccini explores, from foreign conquest to diplomacy, greed and loyalty, remain just as relevant today. It’s a sleekly modern production packed with brisk drama. And the audience can enjoy it simply as spectacle, without caring for opera as an artform, yet this cunning production makes you engage.

In Act II, when the chorus are being evicted from a landscape of half-built skyscrapers by security guards, it was just 24 hours after the NSW government told housing commissions residents who’d lived around the increasingly gentrified Rocks area for decades they had two years to get out.

But this is a splendid production all around, from the costumes by Lluc Castells, especially Butterfly’s stunning bridal gown, to the cast performances. Hiromi Omura is exquisite as Cio-Cio-San, the power and passion in her voice utterly beguiling, her ‘Un bel dì’ aria a moment of intimate beauty. Of several Butterfly productions seen by Business Insider, this is the one that induced tears more than once, some happy, others gut-wrenchingly sad, like the closing scene when Butterfly hands over Sorrow (a fine cameo by Jayden Lai), the son she bore with Pinkerton, to his new American wife.

Georgy Vasiliev’s Pinkerton is both suave and scary in his calculated desire, his voice a reassuring lotion that hides darker intents and Anna Yun as Suzuki, Butterfly’s devoted maid and counsel, is the perfect foil in both voice and temperament to her boss.

Michael Honeyman’s beleaguered Sharpless, the American consul left in an invidious position between two worlds, is also deft, while Graeme McFarlane as Goro the marriage broker, dressed like a Nazi in exile, with his sunglasses and black leather gloves, performs with an amoral obsequiousness.

And when Butterfly’s uncle, The Bonze (Gennadi Dubinsky), storms the wedding with an angry Yakuza gang and renounces his niece, he sings with convincingly appropriate malevolence.

If there was one complaint, it was that the amplified orchestra and singing sounded like the dial had gone all the way to 11, washing away some of the nuance.

Yet the stars twinkle, Sydney shimmers seductively, a grubby Pinkerton wails with last-minute remorse as believable as a disgraced footy player fronting press conference to say he’s let his team and sponsors down, and Butterfly is lost.

And life continues thus.

Madama Butterfly continues until April 13. Tickets here.

Photo: James Morgan

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