“A beautiful spot: the sea, the harbour”, exclaims the American consul, Sharpless, on seeing the perspective over Nagasaki in Act I of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. This exclamation took on a new relevance in Opera Australia’s outdoor production on Sydney Harbour, an annual event for the last three years. The stage on the waters of Farm Cove had as backdrop not only the celebrated Opera House, but also the Harbour Bridge and as dusk fell, thousands of lights from the city buildings added to the atmosphere. More so than La traviata or Carmen (the previous offerings), Butterfly engaged with the surroundings. One character, Prince Yamadori, even arrived by motor-boat, and a giant orb representing the sun was illuminated from the water for the final scene.

Anna Yun (Suzuki) and Hiromi Omura (Cio-Cio-San) © James Morgan
Anna Yun (Suzuki) and Hiromi Omura (Cio-Cio-San)
© James Morgan

Outdoor opera comes with its own challenges and limitations – what it gains in picturesque spectacle, it loses in sound. All the singers were miked, and the invisible orchestra was also amplified. This was inevitable, given the absence of the resonant space within which the performers normally work. The electronic amplification was intended to compensate for this, but in fact went much further, with parts of Act II being almost painfully loud. Other difficulties had to do with the weather on opening night, which was unusually blustery. Two signs suspended from cranes swayed menacingly until secured (one ended up semi-submerged), and the diaphanous ballet of the free-floating silk banners was so vigorous that they had to be held down during the wedding scene. The cast coped admirably with these additional challenges, a few slips on the damp surface aside.

The production team, led by Àlex Ollé (of La Fura dels Baus, the experimental Catalan theatrical company) magnified the story of a deserted and betrayed child-wife in Imperial Japan into a tale of corporate greed and environmental pillage. This was clear from the the crane-mounted signs marked “Lost. Paradise” at the beginning, later reused as development billboards. These evils were personified in the figure of Pinkerton, whose slicked-back hair and business suit shrieked Wall Street at its most uncaring. Written as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, he was reimagined here as a property tycoon, whose company replaced the delicate line of trees in Act I by a mix of finished and unfinished dwellings after the interval. At one point, the moralising got a little heavy-handed: the “Humming Chorus” in Act II saw a line of dispossessed people walking across the stage, an idea used previously (and to far greater effect) in another OA Puccini production, John Bell’s Tosca.

<i>Madama Butterfly</i> on Sydney Harbour © James Morgan
Madama Butterfly on Sydney Harbour
© James Morgan

Cio-Cio-San (the eponymous Butterfly) was also destroyed by contact with Pinkerton. In one of the dramatic coups of the show, she opened her dressing gown in Act II to reveal her trailer-trash outfit of “stars and stripes” singlet and denim cut-offs. Other costumes were selectively modernised: the Japanese male guests at the wedding wore suits, while the female guests were clad in kimonos. Butterfly herself was traditionally clad in Act I, until she divested herself after the wedding, revealing a gigantic tattoo of a butterfly on her back. The Bonze and his sidekicks who intervened were reimagined as Yakuza thugs, Japanese criminals.

Hiromi Omura (Cio-Cio-San) and Georgy Vasiliev (Pinkerton) © James Morgan
Hiromi Omura (Cio-Cio-San) and Georgy Vasiliev (Pinkerton)
© James Morgan

The use of sound amplification had the effect of flattening out some of the differences between individual voices, but to the extent that it could be judged, all the principals were in good voice and gave convincing acting performances. The chief protagonists, Hiromi Omura and Georgy Vasiliev, were especially fine. The former gave an intensely human portrayal of Butterfly; her voice sounded almost mezzo in the lower register, but opened into confident and secure high notes. The rich-voiced Vasiliev managed to make Pinkerton less unlikeable than he often is, and his Act I duet with Butterfly was a particular treat (both went for the optional high Cs at the end). Anna Yun and Michael Honeyman gave sympathetic portrayals of Suzuki and Sharpless respectively, and complemented the leads well. Brian Castle-Onions led the orchestra effectively, with only a few moments of noticeable lack of coordination between the musicians under the stage and the singers above.

Sydney Harbour fireworks © James Morgan
Sydney Harbour fireworks
© James Morgan

One cannot finish the review without remarking on the inevitable fireworks. They were inserted, predictably, in a brief hiatus during the wedding scene, and added to – rather than interrupting – the dramatic flow. Without denigrating at all the fine singers and musicians, it is fair to say that the fireworks epitomise the spirit of the Harbour Opera project: it's all about spectacle and excitement. The purist will always opt for opera in the Joan Sutherland Theatre, where the voices are heard to greater advantage. Nonetheless, the Harbour Opera is most enjoyable sui generis, and hopefully will awaken in new listeners a taste for this musico-theatrical genre.

****1