Monday, March 13, 2017

A delightful and meaningful outing for The Japanese Princess from Lyric Opera of Melbourne: Herald Sun Review

Published online at Herald Sun 14th March and in print 15th March 

SAINT Saëns’ first staged opera La princesse jaune, didn’t go down well at its Paris premiere in 1872 despite it biting into the populism of the exotic at the time. Despite cracks and misconceptions in Louis Gallet’s libretto that rather eek in our more informed and politically correct modern context, praise to Lyric Opera of Melbourne for giving this one-act curio a delightful and meaningful outing for its Australian premiere — in its skin-colour-avoiding English translation, The Japanese Princess.

Michael Macfarlane, Arisa Yura and Kate Macfarlane
Under Artistic Director and conductor Pat Miller’s thoughtful command and a lush-sounding, well-rehearsed 16-member orchestra, a dose of Saint Saëns’ beautifully orchestrated, arabesque and melodic music is a pleasure in itself to hear — even with the peculiarly Arabic flavour that peers through alongside the quaintly Oriental and lyrical passages.

It tells the story of the Japan-obsessed Kornelis who becomes enamoured with the image of a Japanese princess called Ming (not a Japanese name) and Lena his fiance (as well as cousin in the libretto) who, distressed, is uncertain of his love for her. But after an absinthe-fuelled hallucination, Kornelis comes to his senses and realises his love for Lena is real, to which Lena sings how “... love chases away doubt” in her final aria. Comically, she also gives room for a new exotic obsession, perhaps reminding us that spice is a necessity in life.

Director Miki Oikawa takes this bite-sized tale of blind obsession set in Europe and seemingly infuses it with the gentle stylistic beauty of the Japanese tea ceremony. She does so via dancer Arisa Yura who, as a kimono-dressed Ming, drolly surrounds, supports and mocks the pair in this highly focused staging. Even Christina Logan Bell’s set — a small, skewed prismatic structure — bows towards the teahouse idiom. Lucy Wilkins’ early 20th century attire for Kornelis and Lena exudes an overly stiff air but it all glows comfortingly under Lucy Birkinshaw’s muted lighting. Walls are thankfully not carpeted as the libretto makes one believe of Japan. Who spread that misconception?

Michael Macfarlane as Kornelis and Kate Macfarlane as Lena
As the respectable-looking and more introverted Kornelis, tenor Robert Macfarlane sings with sentimental warmth and vigour, delivering appealing resonance and effortless rises to the top of the voice.

At his side (as in real life) Kate Macfarlane’s pure, sinuous and effervescent soprano impresses as she paces about as the loquacious and anxious Lena. As the piece demands, the two bring a strong presence and convey the domestic drama with conviction and, for the most part, carry it through to the wry comic detail. They share the season with Huw Wagner and Kimberley Colman.

As a footnote, Saint Saëns’ little opera formed part of a trio of new short works at Paris’s Opéra-Comique that season. If it’s the kind of material Lyric dig for, Bizet’s Djamileh (which also featured and is another exotic work based on a love triangle set in Cairo to a libretto by Louis Gallet), might very well turn up in the future. This kind of discovery is part of Lyric’s attraction in making going to opera so invigorating.


Lyric Opera, Chapel off Chapel until March 18

Rating: three and a half stars

Production photos: Sarah Walker

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