Thursday, January 1, 2015


I'd always held reservations about Opera Australia's outdoor Opera-on-the-Harbour as being a populist event more about the numbers of bums on pretty expensive seats and the Sydney experience than about thoughtful insights into tragedy with music and voice.

What a thrill therefore to be proven wrong with last summer's Madama Butterfly which, in a complete contrast to the SSO's Elektra, left musical values to be squeaked out of some wholly inadequate speakers into the wide night air (I remember this sound I thought recalling our radiogram in the sitting room in the 60s) but completely had me undone by wonderful production values and the unimaginable moving effect of real space time.

It happened that a country sister was organising a big family night out and we happily accepted the invitation with the tickets on her and the transport and dining on us. It is what these big events are about I suppose: a big night out in a big city bringing everyone together.

The set up is impressive. Elevated platforms and walk ways wound their way through the trees and rocks, that is to say nature, at one end of the Botanic Gardens before dropping you down to the temporary but very solid well raked seating spanning way beyond the sides on a vast floating stage. Japanese style lighting and the nod to Japan in the menu needed to be taken with the best of intentions and the good humour of the occassion. It is, as you have heard a million times, a spectacular setting.

(The lighting rig and cranes are over the stage of which you can see the edge of a large grassy hill at the bottom right of the picture)

Nightfall changed the focus as the mechanics disappear and the Act 1 set of a mysterious bamboo forest atop a lovely grassy hill slope starts to transform perspective and expectations. The spell was working on me.

While the orchestra sound was pretty tiny, acceptance is a marvellous thing, and it was soon enough just to hear the tunes. Who would have thought. Voices were better miked and mixed and generally had effective, mostly good and occasionally thrilling impact.

Why did it work so well? Alex Olle and La Fura dels Baus team. From an ambrosial first Act the idyllic setting changes to the rape of the landscape by ruthless (American) property developers, Butterfly joining the squatters in all but squalid survival as she waits, in vain.

There were three heart stopping and tear jerking moments :

Butterfly's entrance out of the bamboo slowly and hesitatingly down the slope in real time and real space, swathed in soft white crysalid gauze, was just incredibly beautiful and moving theatre

Buttterfly's response to hearing the boat canon announcing its arrival, scampering up a lighting rig to impossible dizzying heights, peering out over the night black harbour, bursting with vocal anticipation (brilliant singing here)

The abduction of Trouble, as he is bundled into the back of a taxi and driven away slowly, his pitiful little face peering out the rear window looking for his mother, the cab disappearing into the blackness of the night.

It was a triumph really, of successful communication, of a reshifting of the usual balance of music and make believe, and getting to the core of the matter - emotion.

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