Don Giovanni drama

Don Giovanni (Opera Queensland)

QPAC, The Playhouse

October 19 – November 3

Opera Queensland’s “Don Giovanni” promises to be a striking production and truly, the aesthetics of the work are impressive, beginning with opening projections that allow the exhilarating score’s initial overture to be appropriately showcased. Although they are less clear when used in the show proper, they still add depth to the story’s dramatic themes and working class Victorian London setting.

There is drama too in the opera’s initial pivotal scene, when after leaving the bedroom of soon-to-be married Donna Anna (Eva Kong in her Opera Queensland debut), the titular Giovanni (Duncan Rock) is confronted by and kills her father, the Commendatore (Andrew Collis). From these early hues of death, things warm as Hayley Sugars struts on stage in an opulent orange ensemble; Anna Cordingley’s contemporary Victoria costume designs represent another highlight with Giovanni’s lush blue coat making him prominent against ensemble shades. A heavily raked stage adds dimension and lighting creates some stunning visual imagery, such as when our antihero is silhouetted against a doorway. So striking are the show’s visuals, that the aesthetic on stage often distracts from follow of the surtitles being shown above (The Mozart opera is sung in Italian with English surtitles).

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Fortunately, the story is a simple one. Giovanni, a wealthy young and debauched nobleman, travels the world seducing women and casting them aside. After he kills Donna Anna’s father he mocks a statue of the slain father. To his surprise, the statue later appears as a ghost who gives Giovanni one last chance to repent. He refuses and is sent to hell as punishment.

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The comedic opera about the Don Juan’s sexual exploits (the opera serves as a version of the Don Juan legend), is filled with familiar motifs of the Shakespearean sort with attempted window wooing, masquerading and disguised identities, and a supernatural haunting. However, given its misogynism, it is a problematic undertaking, especially in recent times in which the misconduct of men has been so in the spotlight. Its unprincipled protagonist is a serial womaniser and rapist, hunting women throughout Europe, and while this production is said to be set in the context of 2018 and the #metoo movement, Giovanni’s philandering is still celebrated as an art form in numbers such as ‘Madamina, il catalogo è questo’, in which his servant Lepereeo (Shawn Brown) clownishly lists the aristocratic playboy’s catalogue of European conquests (1003 in Spain!) as evidence of his insincerity to Donna Elvira.

Conducted by Johannes Fritzsc, The Queensland Symphony Orchestra is high-calibre as always, expertly infusing each supporting character with their own musical motif. Of particularly note is the exhilaratingly dramatic sounds of its darkly rhythmic final number soundtracking of Giovanni’s descent into hell. British/Australian bass baritone and rising international star Duncan Rock, who has previously sung the role of Don Giovanni several times, makes his Australian principal debut as the long-haired Lothario, roaming the stage with an alluring appeal in contradiction to this unscrupulous, scoundrel behaviour. With shirt off for portions of the show he is more Jamie Fraser muscle than traditional opera lead. And he is not only one on stage sans some items of clothing….

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Under Lindy Hume’s direction, this Giovanni’s descent into hell is given a #metoo take as a group of naked and semi-naked volunteer women, representing the ‘avenging furies’ drag him to his death as part of the punishment for his life. While this creates a spectacle for consideration, however, it doesn’t necessarily work, coming across as a heavy-handed inclusion for provocation’s sake.

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QPAC’s Playhouse Theatre setting offers “Don Giovanni” audiences a move intimate experience than Opera Queensland’s most recent productions. It is a long show, as operas are, however, while it is not of a grand scale, as a work that is considered by many to be Mozart’s greatest, it is still offers a satisfying enough experience, particularly for those new to the story and genre alike. While its attempted #metoo take may not resonate due to its tacked-on feel, it does still provide a catalyst for discussion and ultimately the quality of both its Opera Queensland cast and Queensland Symphony Orchestra musicianship, and the aesthetics of its production, largely transcend the disappointment of its unrealised dramatic intents.

Merry Widow magnificence

The Merry Widow (Opera Queensland)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

June 22 – 20

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From the raise of its curtain, it is clear that Opera Queensland’s production of Hungarian composer Franz Lehár’s popular musical “The Merry Widow” is a lavish one. The dramatic set is of an opulent French Art Nuevo period as Act One takes audiences to a Paris embassy ball, where gold glamours in the bold geometry of the decor’s decadent act-deco detail, but also the epaulettes et al of the military costumes of Pontevedrian diplomats and the gorgeous gown of the titular Hanna Glavari (Natalie Christie Peluso)

The beautiful widow Hanna is from the tiny Balkan state of Pontevedro (a stand-in for Montenegro) and her homeland is approaching bankruptcy. The story follows the efforts of Pontevedrin officials at the embassy, primarily the ambassador, Baron Zeta (Jason Barry-Smith), to compel her to marry one of her fellow citizens rather than an enamoured Parisian. And despite his now self-distructive life swimming in pink champagne with the grisettes of Chez Maxime’s supper club, the idealistic Count Danilo (David Hobson) is deemed to be the most fitting suitor. But Hanna and Danilo have a history that sees the story of love in its many guises take some twists and turns (including an expected wedding of the Parisian sort, but not to whom you may expect) along their road to falling in love again.

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Like an Astaire/Rogers Hollywood movie, the narrative is filled with feisty exchanges, mistaken identities and misunderstandings as much as love scenes, with the comedy of confusion cresendoing in Act Two. It’s like a comedy of Noel Coward type manners with operatic melodies… light-hearted and a little bit naughty in its risqué innuendo.

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Justin Flemings adaptation of the libretto is wickedly witty in both its sentiment and creative Cole-Porter type rhymes. And its pithy one-liners are deliciously realised in Hugh Parker measured delivery as Embassy Secretary, Njegus, who mocks the French before becoming ‘Quite Parisian’ himself. Hobson is a humorous drunk when the audience is introduced to the hot-tempered diplomat Danilo and Sam Hartley and Andrew Collins add vaudevillian laughs as Huey and Duey duo, embassy attachés Bogdanovitsch and Pritsch. Then, when a male septet performs ‘Women’ (wonderfully also later reprised by the full ensemble), it is a highly entertaining Monty Python meets MGM musical moment.

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Peluso is captivating as Hanna, easily conveying both her elegance and cheeky spirit. Her crisp soprano sounds soar through the Lyric Theatre, yet she is also affecting in the sentimental love song ‘Vilja, o Vilja’. Opera veteran Hobson is a dashing and suave Danilo, bringing a solid but sweet lyric tenor to his numbers. Together they work well, both theatrically and in vocal duet, most memorably in ‘I Love You So’, the famous Merry Widow Waltz. Also of note is James Rodgers as Camille, French attaché to the embassy and romancer of Barones Valencienne (Katie Stensel). His smooth vocal sounds are richly romantic in capture the character’s blindly-devoted love.

Musically, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra achieves a delightful bright and dynamic Viennese sound, particularly in its strings. The operetta is, however, more than its famous waltz and the orchestra also more than rise to the occasion of its rich and colourful European folk tunes.

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The almost three-hour show, includes two 20 minute intervals, which may seem indulgent, but only until the distinct aesthetic of each act is revealed (Set Designer, Michael Scott-Mitchell). Act Two in Pontevedro is stunningly set against the impressive impressionist backdrop of a Monet waterlily painting with the women dressed in florals and soft colours. Then there is Act Three’s mirrored, metallic-silver shine of Maxine’s where Hanna is hosting a party.

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Not only does the shorter final act feature Hanna’s stunning cabaret-esque entrance, but it opens with an exhilarating, energetic dance number which see dancing waiters with champagne-laden trays can-caning and the club’s girls funning about in frou-frou pink peekaboo tutus. The chorus line numbers not only showcase the dancers’ excellent execution but also the work’s impressive choreography (Graeme Murphy Shane Placentino). Indeed, it is a show of interesting routines that, although eclectic in range from elegant waltzes and folk-inspired routines to sultry Cabaret teases and a Fosse-like while glove showcase circle around Hanna, are all outstanding.

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“The Merry Widow” is a feast for the senses thanks to its considered approach to every aspect of the glamourous production. When, for example, nightclub scene action freezes behind front-of-stage interaction, it creates a sumptuous tableau. Jennifer Irwin’s costumes are also richly realised as part of a bigger aesthetic. Ladies sweep about Act One’s ballroom in fishtail evening gowns on the arms of dapper gentlemen, without any restriction to their moment.

There is a reason why “The Merry Widow” is not only a staple of most opera companies, but the fastest-selling Opera Queensland production in over a decade. The work is extravagant to hyperbolic degrees, yet also highly accessible in its narrative, including a twist in the tale of the widow’s millions, and as it is both sung in and has subtitles in English. Under Graeme Murphy’s direction, it represents collaboration of the very best sort. Indeed, with a cast of around 50 singers and dancers, the opulent operetta is certainly magnificent, both is in its vibrant realisation and playful, irreverent tone. It is lively and entertaining down to smallest detail, so serves both as an ideal introduction to the artform, and confirmation of its beauty, especially in its breathtaking full ensemble numbers.

The delight and unite of theatre

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Theatre-going may beget theatre-going, but the end of year does provide welcome respite to relax and reflect upon the bevy of brilliant shows that Brisbane audiences have be privileged to experience in 2016. As for me, from 150 shows seen, there have been many favourites, including:

  1. The Tragedy of King Richard III (La Boite Theatre Company) – The fast and furious story of rampant revenge that we thought we knew is an evocation of the play, the man and ourselves thanks to the hard questions asked by Daniel Evans and Marcel Dorney.
  1. Disgraced (Queensland Theatre presenting a Melbourne Theatre Company Production) – Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning intense and absorbing drama which fearlessly puts contemporary attitudes towards politics, race and religion under the microscope in exploration of freedom of speech, political correctness and the prejudices towards Islam, even in the most progressive cultural circles.
  1. True West (Brisbane Powerhouse, Troy Armstrong Management, Thomas Larkin and Annette Box) – Sam Shepperd’s modern classic which sees two desert-dwelling brothers go head-to-head, kicking and thrusting towards physical and psychological showdown in desperate pursuit of the American Dream.
  1. The Secret River (Queensland Theatre presenting a Sydney Theatre Company production) – Kate Grenville’s story of two families divided by culture and land on the banks of the frontier Hawkesbury River in the early nineteenth century.
  1. Bastard Territory (Queensland Theatre) – A complex, beautiful story about people that transports audiences back in time to the swinging ‘60s PNG and the bohemian days of 1975 NT, before settling in 2001, as Darwin sits poised for political progress.
  • Best performance – Thomas Larkin as Lee in True West (Brisbane Powerhouse), Ngoc Phan in as Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire (La Boite)
  • Best staging – Madama Butterfly (Opera Q)
  • Best lighting – Snow White (La Boite, Brisbane Festival)
  • Best AV – The Wider Earth (Queensland Theatre)
  • Most interesting – Disgraced (Queensland Theatre, QPAC)
  • Best New Work – The Tragedy of King Richard III (La Boite)
  • Best Shakespeare – Twelfth Night (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)
  • Best musical – The Sound of Music (Andrew Lloyd Webber, David Ian, John Frost and The Really Useful Group)
  • Best cabaret – California Crooners Club (Parker + Mr French, Brisbane Festival)
  • Best dance – Huang Up & Kuka (Brisbane Powerhouse, WTF)
  • Funniest – A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Lyric Hammersmith and Filter Theatre – UK, Brisbane Festival)
  • Most fun – Titanic The Movie The Play (Act/React, Brisbane Comedy Festival)
  • Most moving – The Secret River (Queensland Theatre)

Although many of my personal highlights have been international acts, often featuring as part of festivals, these cultural feasts have also delivered some excellent locally-themed theatre amid the internationalisation on offer. It is the delight of theatre that events such as these can not only inspire creativity, but also unity in cultural participation. Hopefully 2017 will see more people realising theatre’s accessibility, because it is not about a specialist language or privileged perspective but rather just people telling a story or sharing a way of looking at the world… things that are at the core of our essential humanity.

Shakespeare in song

Kiss Me Kate (Opera Queensland)

QPAC, Concert Hall

November 12

As the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, 2016 has seen many of the Bard’s plays brought to theatrical life as part of the global celebration of his work. But perhaps it has been a case of saving the best for last with Opera Queensland’s final production of the year, “Kiss Me Kate”. The semi-staged concert version of Cole Porter’s multi-award winning musical based on Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew” features colossal collaboration as the company is joined by the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and a dynamic cast of singers and actors to bring the classic of American theatre to life.

From the moment of its opening number of Hattie (Lizzie Moore) and company singing showbiz anthem ‘Another Op’nin’, Another Show’, the Porter features are on show with both catchy melodies and bold, witty lyrics (Porter is one of the few composers who wrote both words and music).  And when (as was the maxim for musicals of the golden age) Act Two opens with a big syncopated dance number “Too Darn Hot” it doesn’t matter that it does not contribute to the plot, such is the addictive appeal of its jazzy 1940’s sound.

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The backstage musical revolves around a disastrous Baltimore production of “The Taming of the Shrew”; newly divorced actors Lilli (Cheryl Barker) and Fred (Peter Coleman-Wright) are the show’s bickering couple Katharine and Petruchio, both onstage and off. Add in some secondary characters, such as  Lois (Naomi Price) who plays Bianca, Katharine’s younger sister unable to marry until her shrewish sibling has found a husband, her off-stage suitors and a pair of gangsters (Bryan Proberts and Shaun Brown) intent on collecting a gambling debt from Fred and you are in for a whole lot of fun.

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Barker and Coleman-Wright are wonderful as the warring lead couple, each with their own commanding stage presence. Barker is appropriate feisty on stage as the shrewsome Katharine; proud and haughty, she is sharp-tonged in her song ‘I Hate Men’ and full of violent threats in her titular duet with Petruchio. There is melancholic beauty in her vulnerability in delivery, of ‘So in Love’ and also Coleman-Wright’s reprise of the number, with vocals that resonate with the song’s tragic resignation of unrequited love.

In her dual roles of Lois Lane and sweet Bianca, Naomi Price’s vocals are also excellent. As the charismatic actress she is the quintessential airhead ingénue, with a blunt and brassy accent of the Cyndi Lauper sort, but absolutely charming in all that she does.  With equal prowess, she delivers the tender ballad ‘Why Can’t You Behave’ to her boyfriend Bill (Jason Barry-Smith), who had just missed rehearsal because he was gambling, and later brings cheeky personality to ‘Always True to You in My Fashion’ in which she defends her faithfulness to him despite seeing and accepting gifts from wealthy men.

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Cole Porter’s tuneful score is full of fabulous numbers and under the baton of Guy Noble, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra brings them to glorious life, from the gentle string sounds that accompany ‘So In Love’ to the creation of the light-hearted mood of ‘We Open in Venice’ and the buoyancy of ‘Where is the Life That Late I Led’. However, sound issues spoil some song delivery, distracting from the performance when opening lines are lost. It would be helpful, also, to have a song list included in the show’s program. Jason Glenwright’s lighting awashes the Concert Hall with luscious blues and purples and Josh McIntosh’s costumes twirl about the place to convey a real sense of its time. Even the posture and presence of performers help to take the audience back to its era.

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As a tribute to Shakespeare, the show includes borrowed lines like Hamlet’s rub. And then there is ‘Brush Up Your Shakespeare’, which, thanks to its encore ensemble delivery will earworm with audiences for days. The humourous ditty from Probets and Brown as the dim debt-collecting thugs, is packed with puns and malapropisms and delivered with delicious vaudevillian sensibility as it explains how to pick up women though the type of forced rhymes that resonate through much of Porter’s lyrics (think ‘Let’s Fall in Love’).

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“Kiss Me Kate” is full of colour and movement as its large ensemble scatters the action amongst the orchestra and amid the whirl of props being danced on and off stage. Indeed, under the direction of Kris Stewart, performers make good use of their limited space. To present any take of “Kiss Me Kate”, semi-staged or otherwise, is sure to be an ambitious adventure (the show won the first Tony Award presented for Best Musical in 1949), but given the success of their 2015 “Candide”, this show was always going to be safe in Opera Queensland’s hands. The result is not just a triumphant comical marriage of Shakespeare and Porter, but also of orchestral and musical excellence that feels equally fresh as it does of its time.

Photos c/o – Steve Henry

Figaro’s fiesta

The Barber of Seville (Opera Queensland)

QPAC, The Playhouse

July 9 – 23

It was once suggested that if even stuck for review ideas I could always default to descriptor of a show’s ‘colour and movement.’ Far from cliché, however, there is no better pairing to summarise the appeal of Opera Queensland’s vibrant musical fiesta “The Barber of Seville”. Tracy Grant Lord’s striking sets provide no shortage of colour, creating an opulent aesthetic enhanced by Matthew Marshall’s nuanced lighting and inventive use of nooks and clever crannies to add interest to the predominantly light-hearted fiesta of a story.

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Dashing Count Almaviva (Virgilio Marino) has fallen for the young maiden Rosina (Katie Stenzel). But Rosina’s guardian Dr Bartolo (Andew Collis) is intent on marrying her himself. This is until the Barber of Seville, Figaro (Brett Carter) determines to unite the young lovers through a series of hilarious schemes that see the Count disguising himself as a solider and a music coach to gain access to Rosina. The result is, as Rosina’s governess Berta (Emily Burke) proclaims, a household in chaos, which suits the opera’s particularly fast pacing. Indeed, it is like a French farce, in Italian, but set in Spain, of entrances, exits and physical comedy, particularly from Brian Lucas as a not-so-token, Riff-Raffesque hunchback servant. It is an opera that thrives on absurdity and disorder in the most delicious of ways.

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Each character showcases excellent vocals in accompaniment of their characterisation, especially given the notorious complexity and fast-pace of Rossini’s arias. Really, however, this is Figaro’s show and from the moment he cheekily ascends to the stage from a bumbling entrance through the stalls, in purple and hot pink suit, Germany-based Australian baritone Carter is perfection, capturing his character’s charisma and charm and delivering accomplished vocals to endear the vivacity of Rossini’s score.

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As always, the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, headed by conductor Roland Peelman provides superb accompaniment, evident from the opera’s fabulous, familiar opening overture, taking everyone back to memory of Looney Tunes’ theatrical cartoon short featuring the music and elements of the opera with Bugs Bunny as the Rabbit of Seville. In particular, the strings section provides precise orchestral support for the onstage voices and when sounds are softened by Andrew Veivers on flamenco guitar, the overall aesthetic benefits immeasurably.

In this 200th anniversary year of the first performance of “The Barber of Seville” Opera Queensland have used the witty work to continue the high standard set in their recent productions. While some purists might cringe at its constant comic inclusions, under the direction of Lindy Hume this impressive production dually proves to be a lavish and accessible treat, especially for audience members new to the artform. The show is riotously funny and full of musical sparkle, making it easy to see how it has become one of the most popular works in the repertoire of many opera companies. And the fact that it is Brisbane season is being followed by a regional tour is added delight.

Beautiful butterfly

Madama Butterfly (Opera Queensland)

QPAC, Lyric Theatre

May 12 – 19

Puccini’s 1903 operatic masterpiece, “Madama Butterfly” is a simple but sweeping saga and it is easy to appreciate its place as one of the most passionate and popular operas of all time, when its presentation is in the hands of British director Michael Grandage, some of Australia’s finest opera artists, the Queensland Symphony orchestra and the Opera Queensland chorus.

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It is late-19th-century Nagasaki. Through marriage broker Goro (Virgilio Marino) a 15-year-old Japanese geisha Cio-Cio San which is Butterfly in English, (South Korean singer Hyeseoung Kwon), marries US naval officer Lieutenant Pinkerton (Bradley Daley). To the groom, attracted to her youth, it is a marriage of convenience, but Butterfly has fallen in love and been shunned by her family as consequence of the marriage. Fully intending to find a US bride, Pinkerton departs, leaving the trusting Butterfly believing he’ll return to her and the son of which he has no knowledge. Even after three years of waiting in vigil, watching every ship dock in the harbour, she is unfaltering in her faith that he will return. But when he does, her euphoria turns to heartbreak at realisation that he is not alone.

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This is a story of sweetness and sorrow. Despite its pathos, however, these are also touches of humour, particularly in Act One. Indeed the Act features lots of light touches, including its culmination in the long duet, ‘Vogliatemi bene’ (Love me, please) between the two leads in which Butterfly assures her now-husband that she is his for life. As the caddish Pinkerton, Daley is suitably unlikeable, brash in his beefy tone in contrast to the lyric beauty of Kwon’s beautiful sound.

This really is Kwon’s show and her realisation of her role’s emotional subtly is to be applauded. In a layered performance, she shows modesty, delicacy and hope, yet also later transformation by steely resolve to self-sacrifice more than revenge in her epic final ariaCon onor muore’ (To die with honour). She is delicate, devastated and determined with such authenticity as to have audience members feeling her pain as they shed a sympathetic tear. Indeed, her butterfly is a memorable and moving protagonist; she simply owns the role. Her beautiful performance is pure magic. Her powerful voice is sublime despite the challenge of the score. Just as fine is Hayley Sugar’s considered, understated Suzuki, Butterfly’s maid. And Jonathan Summers is touching as Consul Sharpless, the empathetic go-between who foresees the anything but an ideal outcome to Pinkerton’s initial impulsiveness.

As accompaniment to the magnificent vocals filling QPAC’s Lyric Theatre, the musicians of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra, play with considerable skill and expression. Conductor Johannes Fritzsch is masterful in his interpretation of the score, celebrating its changing moods from whispering strings to dramatic drums. There are fun moments too, when, for example xylophoned Asian chimes are entangled with the tones of the American national anthem in Act One. The show also celebrates stillness, when Butterfly sits through the night, awaiting her husband’s arrival, having recognised his ship in the harbour. And when the strings showcase the emotion of such moments, they allow the audience to languish in the score’s beauty, awash only in its music.

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Every aspect of Christopher Orams’ design is elegant, combining to take the audience from the softness of spring days, through still and peaceful evenings to nights full of stars as backdrop to cherry tree silhouettes. Gorgeous lighting also serves to awash the world in a lush aesthetic, and also enhance interest its creation of shadows.

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Staging is simple, yet stylish, aided by the fact that all three acts (one before interval, two after) take place in the same location – the house Pinkerton rents for his Japanese bride. The use of a sliding shoji screen serves to shield the couple away from the outside and also allows audiences to see events internal as well as external. The hero of the staging, however, is a raked, revolving semi-circular ramp which both allows for interesting downstage shadows when used as a walkway and becomes a grand cliff top when revolved to represent Butterfly’s overnight vigil overlooking the harbour.

The combined result provides audiences with a gorgeous spectacle, without hint of the darkness implicit in the story. Rather Butterfly’s tale becomes a sanitised, sentimental one, seductive in its beauty and nothing short of stunning in its impact. With rich orchestration and sublime vocals, Opera Queensland’s “Madama Butterfly” is a sophisticated, faultless production worthy of not, one but repeat viewings.