Review: Handa Opera on the Harbour – Madama Butterfly

Madama Butterfly is one of the worlds most popular and most performed operas. It remains a guarantee, however, that whether you have seen Puccini’s early 20th century tale of the loss of innocence before, or are only seeing it for the first time, you have never, nor will never see a production like Opera on the Harbour.

Georgy Vasiliev as Pinkerton. Photo credit James Morgan.
Georgy Vasiliev as Pinkerton.
Image by James Morgan.

This year’s production does not merely usher you into a spectacle of surrounding scenery and epic set pieces. Instead you are transported to a rolling, green hillside – notionally in Japan, it doesn’t really matter, it becomes an idyll for home. The symbolism that follows, the telling of this story already so rich in character is really quite overwhelming.

The American (Georgy Vasiliev) – a wealthy developer – happily plans what he’ll do with his bit of virgin paradise in Japan. No commitments he can’t get out of and all for a song swindled from eager locals, the deal comes with a local fifteen year old Cio-Cio-San to become his Japanese bride.
Cio-Cio-San is everything innocence and purity should be. Blissfully optimistic and gently vulnerable, Hiromi Omura in her opening night performance imbued her with a natural effervescence that instantly put the audience in the palm of her hand. As the first act ends with a duet expressing the passionate love shared by the two leads, the world on stage bathed in moonlight, you’re seeing through her love-struck eyes. What could possibly go wrong?

The extraordinary set change of the intermission (probably the most epic in scale likely to be seen in Australia in years!) shatters illusions even as Cio-Cio-San clings to them, making the the final act all the more crushing in execution. It’s spectacular dramatic work, unexpectedly detailed given the scale of production going on around the actress on stage, but this is not a production content to paint performances in brash strokes. Everything has been done with a grace and care (apart from one big costume perhaps at the end of ‘Un bel Di vedrem’) that belies the towering cranes, the lighting on scaffolds and the giant sun looming ominously, threatening to rise out of the harbour and shatter the moonlit illusion.

Hiromi Omura as Madama Butterfly. Photo credit James Morgan.
Hiromi Omura as Madama Butterfly.
Image by James Morgan.

The loss of innocence in Madama Butterfly as told here in Sydney in 2014 is easily as much the tale of a corrupt western world as it is the tragedy of a fallen girl. Cio-Cio-San laughingly tells a potential suitor in Act Two that in America (her country now in her mind) he would be “sent down” for his behaviour in past marriages. It’s a fantasy of course as more than a century later we know better than this. In an age populated by figures such as Gina Rinehart, Rupert Murdoch and David and Charles Koch, we know the businessman will not save his long abandoned Cio-Cio-San, but will grab what he can and ignore the rest as the money keeps rolling in and society around him asks no questions and hears no lies. In a fiery scene in Act Two our American “hero” storms away from the ruin his neglect has caused for a wife and child (a country?) he abandoned to tragic decay and sulks in a taxi, leading his new Caucasian wife to try and swerve towards some form of moral centre.

Madama Buterfly arrives.  Photo credit James Morgan.
Madama Buterfly arrives.
Image by James Morgan.

The cast and crew (both imperative to the success of this lavish production) are sublime. Nothing fazes them even as they manoeuvre about the complicated terrain of the set (boats, cars and bicycles are all involved) and the production anchors to reality through them and the boldness of their movements. This paradise lost is their home.

Georgy Vasiliev is detestably exceptional as B F Pinkerton, our American who causes so much ruin with his western overtures in a foreign land. Anna Yun also shines as lady in waiting – but of course the show belongs to the leading lady.

Hiromi Omura gives a performance as epic in scale as this production requires but very finely tuned to the emotions it is creating. It’s as magnificent an execution of vocals and characterisation as we have yet seen in Opera on the Harbour – raising the bar once again for this stratospheric endeavour.
Though a spectacle, yes, Opera on the Harbour is, only three years in, now a fixture of our cultural landscape – quite a feet given how tentatively it was originally received. If it is at all possible to see this show, do it. It’s an evening, an event, that will linger in your memory for a lifetime.


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