Madama Butterfly soars in a dramatic night of unrequited love on Sydney Harbour

Australia’s biggest outdoor stage is set for one of Puccini’s most loved, and most performed, operas. Opera Australia’s much anticipated Handa Opera production of Madama Butterfly on Sydney Harbour is an agonising story of unrequited love and imperialist capitalism that is larger than the stage it’s on.

This production of Madama Butterfly by Ālex Ollé and La Fura dels Baus, first presented nine years ago and revived by his colleague Susana Gómez, exposes the intricacies of human nature. Its challenging themes of east meets west, innocence and worldliness, devotion and disregard, expectation and disappointment, nature versus manufactured, continue to be relevant to contemporary audiences.

The first Act is set on a lush steep green hill made up of 1,300 squares of artfully trimmed artificial grass. A real bamboo grove sits at the peak, with the lights of Sydney’s city skyscrapers twinkling between the gaps. It’s a slice of paradise and yet large ominous signs hang on either side proclaiming it as a ‘lost paradise’.  Surveyors appear and start to mark out the land. The tone is set and all before the music begins.

Handa Opera Madama Butterfly on Sydney HarbourIn Olle’s modernised adaptation of Puccini’s 1904 opera, Pinkerton is a ruthless, misogynistic, and selfish property mogul who strips the young and naïve Cio-Cio-San of love, dignity, family and ultimately her life. Wedding caterers set up a bar with tables and chairs as photographer’s wait to capture the pair’s marriage. Our first glimpse of Cio-Cio-San comes when she appears with her family through the bamboo trees. She is a gorgeous vision to behold as her cocoon-like wedding gown mirrors the sails of the Sydney Opera House. A sight that speaks to the flawless collaboration between set designer Alfons Flores and costume designer Lluc Castells.

The obligatory fireworks, which are an expected and customary instalment of  Handa Opera productions,  are set off to mark the nuptials. It is the perfect spot for the light display as it is just as artificial as the marriage it celebrates.

By the second act, the hill is stripped of all its beauty and replaced with ugly half-finished apartment blocks. Cio-Cio-San is deserted but naively waits for her dream life to come to fruition and her beloved to return. Despite the vast stage, the final goodbye between Cio-Cio-San and her child is a moment of intense drama. Somehow, it feels as though we’re contributing to her anguish, as we watch on from our seats in the constructed stalls with a plastic cup of champagne in hand.

Handa Opera Madama Butterfly on Sydney HarbourKarah Son is absolutely stunning as Cio-Cio-San (the ‘Butterfly’). She weaves a sense of fragility in both her persona and voice. Son’s voice moves effortlessly from playfulness to heart-wrenching intensity and her rendition of opera’s most coveted soprano aria ‘Un bel di, vedremo’ is sensational with her soaring purity and tone.

Tenor Diego Torre is exceptional as the self-indulgent and callous Pinkerton. His magnificent voice, full of warm and rich tones, has strength and dramatic force that adds to the character’s over-confidence. Michael Honeyman plays the US Consul Sharpless with both kindness and humanity echoing in his warm baritone voice.

Sian Sharp is the ever-faithful servant and friend Suzuki, singing with clarity and poise. Virgilio Marino as the petty marriage broker Goro, is enthusiastically malevolent, while David Parkin as The Bonze (Cio-Cio-San’s Uncle) is almost unhinged in his ferocity. Danita Weatherstone as Kate Pinkerton and Alexander Hargreaves are both solid in their small cameo roles.

Handa Opera Madama Butterfly on Sydney HarbourThe Opera Australia Orchestra and Chorus, under the baton of Conductor Brian Castles-Onion, deliver Puccini’s enthralling score with ease. Their fullness and nuanced control of pacing creates dramatic and emotional tension within each stunning melody.

The story of Madama Butterfly is a story about a young girl desperately grasping at a love already lost. She flitters hopefully, like the wings of a butterfly. Handa Opera’s Madama Butterfly is so much more than just a cruel romance. It’s a beautiful production which makes its audience think even after the music stops and all we’re left with is the sound of the lapping of Sydney Harbour’s water against the floating stage.

– Antoinette Milienos
Antoinette is a Journalist, Violinist, and chronic suffer of F.O.M.O (fear of missing out).

Madama Butterfly runs for approximately 2 hours and 45 minutes, including one interval. The opera plays at Fleet Steps, Mrs Macquaries Point, Sydney, through to April 23, 2023. Buy tickets now. The venue is accessible.

Disclaimer: Antoinette Milienos was an invited guest of Opera Australia.
Photocred: Keith Saunders