Opera Carolina subscribers have to be pinching themselves these days and marveling at their good fortune. The current production of Madama Butterfly begins to electrify before the curtain goes up. That’s because the curtain, festooned with colorful kimonos, is a mere harbinger of the wonders to come from designer Jun Kaneko, who masterfully coordinates scenery, costumes, props, and animated AV projections that perfectly marry modern art with the elegant simplicities of the Orient. Kaneko’s concept is as revelatory as it is eye-popping, but it is no more sensational than Yunah Lee’s Opera Carolina debut as Cio-Cio-San, embodying the Far East grace, trust, beauty, and passion so cruelly exploited by Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. Opera Carolina has scheduled five performances of this stirring production at Belk Theater instead of the customary three, so judging by the opening night crowd and sold-out dates to follow, subscribers are luckiest in having secured their seats before the stampede for tickets.
The enthusiasm is fully merited. A couple of glitches, involving both the principals, marred the early moments of the opening night presentation. Brazilian tenor Fernando De Castro Portari wasn’t in prime voice as Pinkerton, anxiously and lecherously awaiting Butterfly’s arrival, overshadowed by baritone Todd Thomas as the more knowing and sympathetic Consul Sharpless. Lee was already in glorious voice when we first heard her in the wings, as Butterfly’s arrival was preceded by a baker’s dozen of maidens, toting flat-topped parasols, who formed a multicolored phalanx along a curved ramp that spanned most of the stage. Unfortunately, when Lee made her entrance at the top of the slope and paused halfway down to complete her arietta, there was a noticeable faltering – the voice temporarily lost much of its power and ripeness. Perhaps not coincidentally, there was a total blackout in the flow of supertitles until she completed her descent. Speaking from experience, I can testify that even when something is slightly out of whack, an actor’s concentration can be thrown horrendously. Not seeing the light from a projector streaming above her may have temporarily undone Lee’s entrance.
Strengthened by each other’s presence, and maybe by their misfortunes, our protagonists quickly regained their equilibrium matching Thomas’s steadying poise and eventually far surpassing him in sheer vocal splendor. The love duet at the end of Act 1 was sweeping and emotional enough to leave me trembling when the kimono curtain came down for intermission, and Lee’s rendition of the celebrated “Un bel di” left me thinking that Puccini himself never realized the full power of what he and his librettists created in their 1904 adaptation of David Belasco’s 1900 drama. Watching an Asian soprano infusing Cio-Cio-San’s longing and devotion with so much pure passion is almost too much to bear.
With Kaneko at the tiller, we never watch this Butterfly with European detachment or the safe distance of more than a century. When the USS Abraham Lincoln returns to the Nagasaki harbor after three years’ absence Kaneko projects it on multiple screens modernizing the ship’s shape so that it looks more like a destroyer than a majestic Yankee clipper. The lateral animation of this arrival is so exquisitely timed that the last we see of the ship, an American flag leaning off its stern, synchronizes ideally with the score. Nor is Kaneko through with us, weaving his geometric motifs into a Wagnerian epiphany. The curve of the slope where we first see Butterfly is echoed by the ridges surrounding Pinkerton’s love nest – and the bright splotches of color on the lieutenant’s white suit. The same five colors on Pinkerton’s jacket are replicated in Butterfly’s polka-dotted nightie as the couple prepares to consummate their marriage. We see this polka-dot motif in all three acts, most unforgettably in the closing scene as a single huge crimson dot is projected behind Cio-Cio-San as she readies herself for ritual suicide. This is unmistakably the Japanese flag on its side – as it might be flown on a ship – and Kaneko will have it bleed.
Whether referencing Noh theatre or Japanese woodcuts, stage director Leslie Swack keeps us deftly in Kaneko’s point-of-view, meticulously upholding traditional gestures and ceremonies down to the smallest detail, and Michael Baumgarten’s lighting is no less a fulfillment of the purposeful concept. So if mezzo Margaret Thompson isn’t cut from superstar cloth as Suzuki, you can be sure her actions as Butterfly’s maid have the satisfying and moving perfection her singing lacks, and we can be glad she rises to the occasion in the Act 2 flower duet. As we get deeper into the cast – Julius Ahn as the matchmaking Goro, John Fortson as the denunciatory Bonzo, and Daidree Tofano as Pinkerton’s American wife – solid adequacy rules. I was a little more predisposed toward Josh Wentz’s petulant princeliness as Yamadori, Butterfly’s persistent and disappointed suitor.
With Lee, Thomas, Swackhamer, and the Kaneko design team delivering at such a high level, this is one time I can pity Metropolitan Opera subscribers for not having access to this production. Charlotte Symphony, under the direction of Opera Carolina maestro James Meena, will be in the pit for all five performances, probably more consecutive renditions of the same score than they’ve ever played before, more than equal to a second set of rehearsals for their customary fare. If opening night was any indication, they will continue to bring their A-game for the full houses that will greet the remainder of this run. My fears are for Lee and Thomas, singing the robust roles of Butterfly and Pinkerton five times in the space of nine nights. If they maintain the same lofty level, they will convert thousands of Carolinians to the artform. Even if they can’t – if they merely survive the ordeal without permanent injury – I’d love to see them return.