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Review: Madama Butterfly on Sydney Harbour

Review by Olivia Ruggiero


The scene was set, the red carpet rolled out and the finest members of Australian opera, theatre (and political) royalty donned their best to attend the opening of Madama Butterfly on Sydney Harbour. Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (HOSH) has become a staple of the Australian Theatre scene in recent years, and who could resist the glorious backdrop of the Harbour Bridge and the Opera House as the sun sets and the city begins to twinkle with lights? The weather held out after the forecast provided some scares during the week, the sky had a purple hue to it and the stage lights reflect in the water – all adding to the buzz and atmosphere.


It's a spectacle, a wonderful way to entice the masses to engage with opera and a fabulous way to spend an evening – so if you’re not a lover of opera and a first-time goer, I am sure this is a treat for the senses. It may even encourage you to buy a ticket to another opera later in the season which is awesome. However, if you’re an opera lover, familiar with the work or even with the voices, you know how sublime the experience can be.


There are a few glitches that stop this show from being a prime success – some of them can be helped and others are simply symptoms of the setting.

The end of Act I features a stunning, typical Puccini, lusciously blooming love duet between Butterfly and Pinkerton. A moment that would be sheer perfection in the setting, on a beautiful Autumnal evening… Alfons Flores’ set design is a magical vision, as the moon rises over the glorious sloped grassy hill, peppered with trees and a sweet stone seat for the lovers to embrace on. Picturesque and perfect it would be if you weren’t so distracted by the loud motor that powers the inflatable moon overpowering not only the amplified orchestra but the voices who you should be completely enraptured by.


There are some more technical difficulties with the subtitles not working in the first 5 minutes of the show, not a big deal, as the glitch is soon fixed but there are certainly unpleasant murmurings through the audience. This is followed by microphone malfunctions, which see Karah Son and Michael Honeyman’s microphones cutting out at various points in the show. What that does show the audience is that these opera singers have big voices, for even with that lack of amplification you could still hear them cut through the elements. It also shows what amplification does to the voice of a well-trained singer – it doesn’t allow you to hear their natural beauty, enjoy their impressive vocal prowess and really see what they are trained to do. The thing that would make this production soar to new heights are those performers. Karah Son has a lovely tone, but her vibrato is thick and quite wobbly, potentially a side-effect of the over shaping of her vowel sounds, which also contributes to the lack of bloom on her top notes. It doesn’t help that for the majority of Act I she is completely distracted trying to manage an oversized headpiece that does not fit her. Lluc Castell’s costume design is truly a vision and a wonderful representation of this modern production of Butterfly. The subtle representation of the traditional Japanese culture in Butterfly’s Act 1 costume is a lovely touch however it seems in this instance there are some more alterations needed to make this costume work.

Sian Sharp is everything a mezzo soprano should be – with a warm and even tone, she wows in all of her singing. Sharp is consistent, she delivers a powerful and truthful performance. Brava.

Diego Torre is the star of this show – somehow, despite the character he is playing, he manages to make you fall in love with him. He is charming and his voice is exemplary. His tone is pure, his technique is effortless, and he certainly has the “wow” factor.


The show runs at just over 3 hours – not long for an opera but should be shorter as the interval goes for much longer than expected as the set change is astronomically big and whilst the crew are efficient – it is a near impossible feat to maneuver those big pieces in a 20 minute time frame. The ideas behind this production are poignant and fabulous but perhaps a little poorly executed in this setting. I am normally not a fan of moving opera into time periods other than when they are set. It rarely works, but here, it does. The modern interpretation suits this show beautifully and all the production elements are there, but it is hard to try and fill an entire harbour and engage such a wide spread audience. The design elements all make sense, they are cohesive but it is certainly clunky and perhaps doesn’t execute the vision of the designers to their full potential.

To produce a flawless or brilliant show on such a large scale would be excruciatingly difficult but perhaps some production elements need to be rethought when producing a show on the harbour. They need to be kept within reason and the technical elements behind the designs need to smoothly operate in order to create success.


Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour is an event for the masses, it’s a tourist attraction – is this show the best example of what Australian theatre has to offer? At this point in time, no. Perhaps with a little more thought, tweaking some elements and allowing the concept of Opera on the Harbour to develop into what it should be – it would be a roaring success.


Images Supplied by Opera Australia

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