When thinking of operas related to Japan Madama Butterfly would be the first, and possibly the only one that springs to mind. Thanks to Melbourne’s Lyric Opera and their aim to mount significant neglected operatic works, Saint-Saëns’ hour-long comic opera in one act and five scenes now joins Puccini’s popular masterpiece in our awareness. La Princesse Jaune (The Yellow Princess) – or as Lyric have named it for obvious reasons, The Japanese Princess has now been given an Australian premiere that displays its merits both in terms of melodious oriental-flavoured score and as an opportunity for gifted singers to embrace two demanding but rewarding roles.
In her directorial debut, Miki Oikawa has emphasised the Japanese aspect of the opera, which revolves around the male protagonist’s obsession with things Japanese and his infatuation with a painting of a Japanese woman called Ming. Oikawa’s inventive use of Noh masks and stylized dance movement gives substance to a world of fevered imagination and longing for the exotic.
The production at Chapel off Chapel had dancer Arisa Yura in her glorious kimono, setting the scene as an incarnation of the Japanese Princess, with geisha-like attitudes, deft fan gestures and a final revealing disrobe during the Overture. The two singers were also put through their physical paces as masked comic figures jumping about the central figure when the music became more energetic.
Authenticity in the costuming complemented Christina Logan Bell’s set design and Lucy Birkinshaw’s lighting design. The action unfolded on a simple raised platform with tatami-like flooring and a backdrop evoking gilded Satsuma ware and floral embroidery. Surtitles were projected onto the upper section of the backdrop depicting a roof of wooden shingles. It is hard to imagine surtitles being presented in a more appropriate way. At various points translations from the French were projected in both English and Japanese, thereby accentuating the Oriental element. Saint-Saëns included an actual Japanese poem for the soprano and Arisa Yura declaimed part of the text in Japanese between the phrases a lovely song for the soprano.
For all these emblems of Japanese culture the opera is actually set in the Netherlands – a reminder that the Dutch East India Company provided an early gateway into Japan and fuelled the passion for that mysterious otherness that beguiled Saint-Saëns himself. Although the plot is farcical this imaginative production managed to inject emotional depth while maintaining the entertaining absurdity of the situation. Saint-Saëns’ music was treated with respect and we were persuaded to care about the romantic entanglements besetting affianced cousins Kornélis and Léna that propel the action.
As the deluded Kornélis, Robert Macfarlane made an engaging comic figure. The exceptional warmth and ease of his vocal production were very well suited to the attractive lyricism of Saint-Saëns’ score and did much to counterbalance the idiocy and, at one point, the violence of Kornélis’ character. His actions under the influence of absinthe conveyed an endearing lack of guile, especially when being manipulated by the spirit persona of Arisa Yura.
Coloratura soprano Kate Macfarlane (yes, they are married) also sang and acted with assurance. Her tone was clear and her top notes strong and vibrant. Accompanied by Jasper Ly’s mellow oboe, her singing of Léna’s aria of resignation as she farewelled her cherished hopes was particularly touching. Her shifts between longing, fear and happiness as she was confronted with an hallucinating Kornélis, who finally manages to sleep off both the drug and the delusion and genuinely embrace her, were nicely graduated and convincing. The staging of her discarding of the robes as Kornélis came to his senses tied in beautifully with the unwrapping sequence of the opening scene.
Although all of the singing was in French, extended passages of dialogue were delivered in expressive, clearly articulated English, making the work highly accessible. The text had been slightly modified to include some contemporary references without too much anachronistic creaking.
This will probably be the only opportunity for opera lovers to see Saint-Saëns’ little gem. With a small, capable orchestra under the direction of Lyric’s highly accomplished Artistic Director, Pat Miller, some exceptionally fine singing and a beautiful production of fascinating invention, Lyric has once again created an operatic treat that should not be missed.
With a double cast of singers, there will be another two performances on each of four nights: Tuesday and Wednesday at 6 & 8pm and Friday and Saturday at 7 & 9pm, there are still opportunities to get tickets.