There are so many moving parts to an opera that for even the most well-known and financially well-endowed companies it is a minor miracle when everything gels and it is an artistic triumph. When it is a local opera company using primarily local singers, musicians and staging artists, it is an outright cause for celebration and pride. As the finale to their fourth season, Capital Opera presented Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at the Fletcher Opera Theater, and it proved to be a shining example of artistic excellence even with the inevitable cost-cutting.
After three and a half years presenting operas in Meredith College's Jones Auditorium, a venue not at all suited for opera or musical theater, Capital Opera seemed to finally arrive home at this lovely intimate theater complete with orchestra pit. This is a company that is quite serious about their artistic mission, which includes providing quality productions at very affordable ticket prices, performance opportunities for emerging artists and educational outreach. Those are very admirable and noble principles but they would not mean much unless they produced on game day – and boy did they ever!
The idea of the “Ugly American” (even more than 100 years ago) is basically the subtext of the story behind Madama Butterfly, as the villainous B.F. Pinkerton uses and abuses the young, trusting Cio-Cio-San for his own needs without any conscience of his loathsome deeds – or is there some spark of humanity near the end? Wade Henderson played that U.S. Navy Lieutenant in search of a good time on Nagasaki without those pesky legal marriage vows applying to him. He was masterful both in his strong, vibrant tenor voice and his excellent dramatic portrayal. Without excusing the character’s abominable behavior, Henderson was somehow able to impart a deeper dimension to Pinkerton other than the traditional “wham, bam, thank you m’am” Lothario.
Once Cio-Cio San makes her entrance about one third of the way into the first act, there are but a very few scenes where she is not on stage and singing. This character has one of the most demanding and marathon-like roles in all of opera, and Summer Grest was spectacular in her energy, pacing and dramatic portrayal of the teenage Butterfly. She is a recent graduate of UNC-Greensboro and is well on her way to the big leagues. No attempt was made, as in most productions, to artificially paint her up as Japanese. Sitting so close in this small theater it is easy to detect false and amateurish acting, but I was constantly drawn into the emotional roller coaster of Butterfly's torment.
Dawn Pierce, as Suzuki, Cio-Cio San's servant, and Krassen Karagiozov, as Sharpless, the next biggest supporting parts to the two big leads, were uniformly in fine voice and strong stage presence. There are a host of lesser parts too numerous to mention but there was no weak link with any singer nor any aspect of the production. Scott Tilley conducted a reduced orchestra of the finest area musicians, but the smaller size fit the hall and staging perfectly. As soon as you heard the first few measures of the complex opening fugue you knew that we were in for an afternoon of a professional production second to none.
The costumes were quite extravagant and authentic and must have been a major line item on the expense account of this production. The sets and lighting were quite minimalist which is my only minor complaint of the entire opera. This can be the most expensive part of any theatrical production and I am not proposing that they should have sunk in major dollars for elaborate sets. However, some inexpensive Japanese screens and other low tech ambience would have added a visual lift that was missing. There was also a slight problem with the supertitles; they were displayed on a piece of material with many creases rather than a flat surface so it was sometimes hard to read some of the distorted letters.
Opera companies tend to have a survival rate almost as dismal as restaurants so it is important that we support Capital Opera to insure that they remain an active and viable organization for many years to come. Visit their website and mark your calendars to attend world class opera for little more than the cost of a single compact disc!