Palm Beach Opera opens season with a vivid and affecting “Butterfly”
Despite Madama Butterfly being set in a land of subtle manners and delicate beauty, productions of the opera often abound in crude stereotypes of East and West.
To Palm Beach Opera’s credit, the company’s affecting, season-opening production of Puccini’s classic indulged in none of this. While not shying from the clash of American and Japanese cultures that provides the context, this production presented the doomed teenager Cio-Cio-San and her feckless American husband Pinkerton as rounded characters from the start, not simply personifications of Japanese passivity or American cultural arrogance.
A full house was on hand Friday for opening night at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, with a table in the lobby offering free boxes of tissue for those who couldn’t quite handle the events of Act 2. The audience was rewarded with first-rate singing in the title role, evocative orchestral playing in Puccini’s richly colored score, subtle stage direction by Sam Helfrich and sets and costumes that maximized the beauty of the setting.
As Cio-Cio-San, the soprano Inna Los appeared first as a young girl who was deeply in love, not just the passive object of Pinkerton’s lust. In their love scene at the end of Act 1, she was as much the eager participant, passionately reaching for him and caressing him. Vocally, she had the power for Puccini’s long lines of melody, with a luxuriant tone and the ability to float soft, focused high notes that could be heard above the orchestra and other singers. Her arrival in the first act, accompanied by a chorus of women with fans, was radiant, as her ecstatic notes floated on a cloud of female voices in the chorus.
If “Un bel dì,” her fantasy of the day Pinkerton would return, lacked the edge of desperate hope, it came off with a smooth legato and full tones. And in its counterpart, “Che tua Madre,” in which she expresses horror at the idea returning to a life of entertaining men with her singing and dancing, she sang with a profound sadness and maturity.
As Pinkerton, Scott Quinn eschewed the usual crude swagger and animal lust that many singers bring to the naval officer’s role. In Act 1, he treats Cio-Cio-San with genuine tenderness, even if his character’s emotional and moral attention span could be measured in minutes. His appealing, agile voice often seemed too small for the part, and his tenor was covered by the orchestra in “Dovunque al mondo,” although along with Luis Ledesma as Sharpless, he brought off a ringing “America forever,” with whiskey glasses raised.
In “Io so che sue dolore,” the trio in which he realizes the enormity of what he has done to Cio-Cio-San, the full despair and remorse that top the music didn’t always project, although he had the sweet-toned voice for the part.
As Sharpless, the American consul appalled at Pinkerton’s actions, the baritone Luis Ledesma exuded maturity and decency, singing with warmth and humanity. Although his gruff tone was sometimes unfocused, he played the role with an affecting emotion, waving his arms in horror and exasperation at Pinkerton when he learns that Cio-Cio-San was just 15 years old.
As Cio-Cio-San’s faithful servant Suzuki, the mezzo-soprano Zanda Švēde brought an affecting compassion to the role, from her cry of dismay at seeing Pinkerton’s American wife to her deep bow in her final farewell to Cio-Cio San. Her rich voice provided firm support to that of Los in their Act 2 duet, as she tried gently to get her mistress to face reality and gamely played along with Cio-Cio-San’s joy at the impending arrival of Pinkerton’s ship.
In keeping with the intense realism of the production, Michael Buquo, the young boy portraying Cio-Cio-San’s son, was required to do much more with the role than simply serve as the blond stage prop of typical productions. He rose to the occasion, whether helping decorate his mother’s hair with flowers and running out to hug her as she is about to kill herself, adding measurably to the impact of the scenes. At the very end, unaware of his mother’s dead body at the other end of the stage, he was waving a small American flag as the projected image of the Japanese rising sun expanded to encompass her and the rest of the stage.
Under chief conductor David Stern, Palm Beach Opera’s fine orchestra gave a performance that was rich in Puccinian warmth and color, with lush, soaring string passages, evocative, emotionally piercing wind playing and theatrical punch in the big moments. Stern’s brisk conducting never allowed the plushness of Puccini’s orchestration to slow down the drama. Under chorus master Greg Ritchey, members of the chorus were outstanding throughout in their important roles as Cio-Cio-San’s family and friends, singing with razor-sharp intonation and glowing, well-blended tones.
The traditional production by Pacific Opera Victoria was handsome, if conventional in its representation of Cio-Cio-San’s house, with sliding screens and a cherry blossom tree.
As the marriage broker Goro, the tenor Joseph Hu was obsequious and money-grubbing without becoming a stock character. As the Bonze, bass Erik Anstine was underprojected, lacking the baleful authority and menace of the patriarch as he denounced her marriage to Pinkerton.
The baritone Joshua Conyers portrayed a pompous and pathetic Prince Yamadori, Cio-Cio-San’s persistent and unsuccessful suitor. As Pinkerton’s American wife, Kate, the soprano Jessica Fishenfeld emphasized her ominous presence rather than any compassion for Cio-Cio-San, appearing as an inert, dire figure at the back of the stage.
Palm Beach Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly will be repeated 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. Alexandra Loutsion and Adam Diegel will sing the principal roles Saturday night. pbopera.org; 561-833-7888
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Sat Jan 28, 2017
at 2:49 pm