This exquisite new production of Madama Butterfly has been created by the Spanish creative team La Fura deis Baus, especially for this year’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, and is the third in the series, following spectacular productions La traviata and Carmen.
What is so impressive about this production is how well the concept respects and serves the opera while giving it an aggressively contemporary treatment. This Cio-Cio-San (Hiromi Omura) is no prettily preserved butterfly pinned and displayed as an example of the style and customs of old Japan. In this production she’s a spunky modern miss, who is working as a geisha when she meets Pinkerton. She has butterfly wings tattooed on her back, tattoos on her legs and wears shorts and tee-shirts around home.
Pinkerton (Georgy Vasiliev) is now a property developer who becomes infatuated with Cio-Cio-San on a visit to Japan, never has any intention of marrying her but goes through a Japanese wedding ceremony as a means to an end.
The first act is played out on a huge green grassy hill, complete with a bamboo forest in the background. It makes a beautiful setting for the forthcoming wedding of Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton, as we watch the catering staff efficiently convert the grassy hill into a romantic setting for the wedding. Cio-Cio-San and her bridesmaids arrive, all gorgeously garbed in traditional Japanese wedding garments, followed by relatives and guests; some dressed in modern fashions, others in traditional national dress.
At the height of the wedding celebrations the Bonze (Gennadi Dubinsky) arrives to berate Cio-Cio-San for changing her religion. His henchman rough up the wedding guests, who leave the celebrations in dismay. Pinkerton stands up to the Bonze, the caterers leave and Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San are left alone to declare their undying love for each other in front of a huge pale yellow rising moon.
During interval a fascinating scene-change is accomplished in front of the champagne-sipping audience wherein the grassy hill is replaced by partially built skyscrapers towering over a little shanty, where Cio-Cio-San now lives with her friend, Suzuki (Anna Yun) and her small son, Sorrow (Jayden Lai). Occasionally she receives visits from the American Ambassador, Sharpless (Michael Honeyman) with news of Pinkerton.
On the roof of the shanty are two chairs where nightly Cio-Cio-San and Suzuki keep watch over Tokyo Harbour – magically represented by Sydney Harbour in all its night-time glory – unshakeable in her belief that Pinkerton will return and take both her and their son back to America.
When Pinkerton does return to Japan years later to pay Cio-Cio-San a visit, it is with an American wife in tow. He is completely ignorant of the fact that Cio-Cio-San has borne him a son in the meantime, and is now living in a shanty town surrounded by partially built high-rise buildings, or that she had stayed true to her promise to wait for him forever.
During the course of this act, Sharpless arrives in an ambassadorial limousine at one point, Pinkerton and his American wife arrive and leave in a taxi, and the scorned suitor Yamidori (Sitiveni Talei) is sent packing in his luxury launch, all before the opera reaches its heart-wrenching finale.
As Cio-Cio-San, Japanese soprano Hiromi Omura is simply marvellous. Her voice warm and lustrous when she sings about Pinkerton, dark and dramatic as she rejects the advice of Sharpless, hard and uncompromising as she rebuffs Yamidori’s proposal of marriage. Her acting is passionate and convincing, and her joy at the first sight of Pinkerton’s ship is palpable, as is her exhaustion and disappointment when he fails to arrive.
Russian tenor Georgy Vasiliev is also superbly cast as Pinkerton. Handsome, charming and possessing a stunning voice. The audience is left in no doubt as to why Cio-Cio-San would be swept away by this man. His eventual remorse at the realisation of the results of his thoughtlessness was touchingly portrayed.
The singing from the whole cast is exemplary, and the acting convincing. Anna Yun is particularly touching as Cio-Cio-San’s warm, caring friend and confidant, Suzuki. Graeme Macfarlane uses his considerable experience to bring depth to the role of the conniving marriage-broker, Goro.
Michael Honeyman is excellent as the thoughtful, dignified ambassador, Sharpless, perplexed by his friend Pinkertons’s cavalier attitude to his responsibilities. Celeste Lazarenko, in the comparatively unrewarding role of Pinkerton’s American wife, Kate, also makes a strong impression.
Although unseen until the final bows, and sensitively amplified, the huge orchestra, under the baton of Brian Castles-Onions provided a lush account of Puccini’s superb score insuring that the luscious arias and ensembles succeeded in capturing the joy and tragedy inherent in this wonderful score.
This is an intelligent, beautifully sung production of Madama Butterfly. Director Alex Olle’s contemporary take on this opera, supported by a marvellous set design by Alfons Flores and imaginative costumes by Lluc Castells , all splendidly realised by Opera Australia, works a treat.
Presented as it is, in the breathtakingly beautiful setting on Sydney Harbour in Autumn, it provides an operatic experience unequalled anywhere else in the world. Little wonder that people are flocking to Sydney to experience Lyndon Terracini’s remarkable concept.
An extra performance has already been added for this remarkable production which will now run until Sunday 13th April. Don’t miss it!
Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquaries Road, Royal Botanic Gardens Sydney
Season continues to 13 April 2014
Bookings: (02) 9318 8200 or online at: www.opera.org.au
For more information, visit: www.opera.org.au for details.
Image: Hiromi Omura (Cio-Cio-San) and Georgy Vasiliev (Pinkerton) by James Morgan – courtesy of Opera Australia
Review: Bill Stephens