It seemed the impossible dream: to create an operatic production on Sydney Harbour that combines artistic integrity and populist spectacle. La Traviatain 2012 certainly offered spectacle, and Emma Matthews raised the stakes with a much-praised central performance. Last year’s gloomy Carmen,however, struggled, lacking intimacy and with visuals veering off all too frequently into tacky territory. But this year, “By George, I think they’ve got it!”

Àlex Ollé’s stunning staging for Opera Australia is one of the best productions of Puccini’s Madama ButterflyI’ve seen, a feast for the eye yet managing to zoom in on the human dimension to create moments of enormous emotional impact. Yes, it’s an update; yes it’s radio-miked and amplified; yes, it’s at the mercy of the elements (the wind on opening night threatened to carry off its fair share of set and costumes), but this handsome interpretation, by the geniuses from Spanish theatre company La Fura dels Baus, has that all-too-rare ability to appeal to the once-a-year-champagne-and-fireworks brigade, while giving the seasoned opera buff plenty of food for thought.

Ollé’s big challenge, he says, was how to integrate the landscape of Sydney Harbour into a socio-political reading of the opera in order to anchor...