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opera australia-handa opera on sydney harbour: puccini’s ‘madama butterfly’

Above: Karah Son as Cio-Cio-San with Diego Torre as Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton on the set which makes use of the familiar Sydney skyline to bring the tale home. Featured image: the full magnificence of the Handa Opera on the Harbour outdoor performance event, complete with fireworks. Photo credit: Keith Saunders.

There are all kinds of paradise – such as wealth, comfort, cultural confidence, prestige, trust, family, safety and excitement.

A modern accent blends into the tourist destination backdrop of the Harbour for this presentation. To prepare us for the story, captions on LED billboards glaring at us initially provide a warning of the tone of this opera wih the words “Paradise’ and ‘Lost’ .

Puccini’s tale with stunning soundtrack and biting comment on cultural clash in its 1904 libretto  is  a take-anywhere-and-startle-story. Especially when given the chance to view  it from our twenty-first century standpoint and we watch its hopeless progression  in front of our familiar, stable environmental icons such as the Harbour Bridge, Opera House, commercial city buildings and glistening water.

Madama Butterfly’s entropic excursion towards the faux-romantic mismatch between the ingenuine American soldier and ex-geisha seeking redemption through marriage is presented with vivid outdoor slideshow efficiency, dropped right down in our local laps.

There is sparse, spread-out staging on offer here. The success of its atypical but striking nature is not to be debated here. In a 2023 revival after the alfesco  production’s  premiere almost a decade ago.  This diorama departs significantly from traditional use of contrasts between Asian imagery and Western outfits or acoutrements. The contrast between colours and pace or busy-ness versus stasis provides sumptuous emphasis amidst the verismo drama’s streamlined descent to its conclusion.

Above: Diego Torre as Pinkerton, Michael Honeyman as Sharpless, Karah Son as Cio-Cio-San and Bronwyn Douglass. Photo credit : Keith Saunders.

As the action shows the American soldier finding a woman in an exotic land to take as fake wife and souvenir her then then desert  her, objects and costumes against  the bright  green astro-turfed hill  in Act One are contrasted. Also the century old attitudes are seen starkly placed or grouped at the marriage event  on the village border hill resembling a dangerous golf course or tennis centre  for the arranged  marrige and reception.

The flexibility and conceptual. stretches of  this production  depict America and Japan as the home or the ‘other’ . To do so, it uses a hefty swag of increasingly eclectic design and costuming reference points. These provide severe contrasts between East and West as props or set textures  decorate the landscape with billowing lyricism in the wind or interrupt it as an eyesore construction in Act 2.

This Handa Opera on the Harbour concept gives us the chance to see Madama Butterfly in svelte revival guise. Action is in the complete open. This tale is presented through contrasts of energy, position of conversation, size of crowds and entries or exits through bamboo, via catering vans, or land and water taxis.

There is keen blocking of cast and a decent energy and coverage of the hilly set. Impressive  transformations from order to disorder occur. The entrance of the critical, defensive Bonze and other religious relatives is a dramatic piece of outdoor theatre. It is an  example of quick changes on the stage when the wedding area is left in an overturned, wrecked state of deshabillé after the confrontation.

Steadfastly balanced and unwavering on the set’s undulation is the vocal excellence of the principal artists. The sound realisation is always excellently balanced with the orchestra and other voices in this challenging  amplified-opera landscape.

Above: Karah Son as Cio-Cio-San. Photo credit : Keith Saunders.

Direction up and down the hill, in and out of the lonely Act 2 house that tradies built during interval is effective and unfolds at a variety of speeds and shapes.  Revival Director Susana Gómez does brilliantly to direct the traffic flow on set as conceived by  Àlex Ollé in the original vision. The staging pushing an agile swoop of hurt or sudden commotion across the landscape, with momentum of the story maintained.

Karah Son and Diego Torres reprise their recent intensities from indoor roles for Opera Australia here. Their dramatic and vocal compatibility and work across the shifting ensemble tableaux is always sensitively sung.

Above :  David Parkin as Bonze and the cast of Opera Australia’s production of Madama Butterfly on Sydney Harbour. Photo credit : Keith Saunders.

Other experienced Butterfly characterisations are supplied by Opera Australia stars David Parkin (The Bonze), Michael Honeyman (Sharpless), Alexander Hardreaves (Prince Yamadori) and Sian Sharp (Suzuki). And there are dual artists assigned to some roles to supply more performance variety later in the run.

Sian Sharp has performed Suzuki in productions various, including sets with  watery moats or digital design, in striclty traditional outfits and now in a mélange of style. At all times she has presented the role with an admirable depth of vocal colour and a dramatic crescendo towards angry, heartbroken solidarity to support the disbelief of the outcome. This performance is also on point.

The misguided and lonely Cio-Cio-San is once more brought to life with rocketing, train-wreck, bubbling sensitivity by Karah Son. Her scenes in Act 2 in, around and lithely up ladders about the house built  on set during interval are modern-production-exemplary.

Unreciprocated enthusiasm is believable in this nicely timed performance from the diminutive diva. We watch Son tear up predicament complete with denim shorts, US flag singlet and shrouded in the fragile gauze of her wedding veil.

The  coveted ‘Un bel di vedremo’ is delivered below the porch level of the house but its measured expansiveness  reaches the Sydney Harbour sky and beyond.

Handa Opera on the Harbour is a worthwhile event to be grateful and excited for. It celebrates the foreshore, the art form, local talent and confusing humanity. Opera fans new and old should come to experience what is a ‘fine day’of live performance indeed.

‘Madama Butterfly ‘ plays at Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquarie’s Point until April 23



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