By Joanna Simmons
Lyric Opera presents the first in its’ trio for the 2017 season, and Camille Saint Saens’ The Japanese Princess is a wonderful choice of work. Having never been performed in Australia; this one-act comic opera is accessible and excellent. The story is simple so the main feature is the music; played beautifully by the Lyric Chamber orchestra and sung by the experienced cast of three. It’s a treat for the ears, and with dialogue in English and subtitles for all the French Songs it defies any old notions that opera is dusty fat ladies warbling in foreign tongues for hours.
We follow the story of Kornelis, an art student who becomes infatuated with all things Japanese, and much to his fiancée (and cousin in the libretto) Lena’s dismay, becomes obsessed with the portrait of a mysterious Japanese Princess, Ming (not a Japanese name.) Ming makes Lena question herself, her relationship and Kornelis’ sanity. The voluptuous orchestra ornately guides the story with a nod to the orient with songs with colourful language and robust emotions.
Lena, played by Kimberly Coleman (and alternated with Kate Macfarlane) was naturalistic and strong. She plays up the comedy where needed and connects with the other players and the music. Robert Macfarlane as Cornelius’s (alternated with Hew Wagner) dulcet tenor tones were right on the money. I wish his acting was as strong, as there were a lot of comedic moments that could have been more detailed with facial expression and timing, and other moments that felt forced. Arisa Yura as Ming, is subtlely woven into the story and is captivating to watch. She dances skillfully with a fan, her delicate hands well placed; yet then does some turns and steps that break character and genre, which feels disjointed alongside the music and set.
The intricate set designed by Christina Logan Bell that feels like the inside of a Japanese fan or tea house, complete with tatami mats, is beautiful and memorable. It, combined with the well-plotted lighting by Lucy Birkinshaw, transports us to this wonderous other world. Lucy Wilkins’ costume design fits well with the set and the era, adding colour and beauty with Ming’s kimono, and a neutral- everyday feel to Cornelius and Lena. Director Miki Oikawa has tastefully bought this production out to be one that is accessible in our modern day, in partnership with artistic director and conductor Pat Miller, whose passion and knowledge is evident, and should be highly commended.
The part I loved the most about this show was the beginning, where Miller turned around from facing the orchestra and invited us to ensure that our phones weren’t going to disturb the performance, but encouraged us to use them, to share with people what we are doing, and push opera to become something that is spoken about, shared, liked, snapchatted, hashtagged and all. In our world of watching videos for 30 seconds before getting distracted, it can be difficult to produce theatre to challenge our palates whilst tickling them too. This show is engaging and enchanting, simple and satisfying for the ears and eyes.
Lyric Opera’s The Japanese Princess played at Chapel Off Chapel, 11-18 March, 2017
Image by Sarah Walker