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After a shaky start and four subsequent revisions, Madama Butterfly has become a staple in the opera repertoire and one of the most frequently performed of all operas. The original version was premiered at La Scala in February 1904, almost a year after Puccini was involved in a near fatal automobile crash. Were it not for the intervention of a doctor who lived near the scene of the accident, Puccini may well have died. His recovery from his injuries did not go well and likely affected his work in completing the opera. Consequently, Madama Butterfly was rushed to completion, and the premiere suffered from inadequate rehearsal. Three years and four revisions later, the final version was a resounding success, and the opera continues to be an audience favorite.
In his musical setting of the tragic story of a young Japanese girl and her love for an American sailor who is more interested in a temporary dalliance*, Puccini employs all his masterful skills of harmony, orchestration, motif development, and captivating lyricism. The naïvety of Cio-Cio-San is set against a mixture of romanticism and thoughtlessness that reflect Pinkerton's character. Puccini uses snippets from the "Star-Spangled Banner" as his signature tune. (It was, at that time, a Navy anthem; it did not become the National Anthem until 1931.) Themes of almost unbearable sadness are set against Cio-Cio-San's irrepressible childlike hope.
The oriental flavor of Madama Butterfly and Cio-Cio San, in particular, is depicted partly through the use of simple Japanese folk (or folk-like) tunes, but the music is primarily Puccini's unique creation, using pentatonic and whole-tone scales which musicians of this period tended to associate with the exotic Far East.
The inevitable tragic ending to the story comes with Cio-Cio-San's ritual Japanese suicide and the now wizened Pinkerton's realization of the consequence of his thoughtless use of the innocent and fragile young girl.
Madama Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San is roughly the Italian transliteration of the Japanese expression for Butterfly) came to life on the stage of Raleigh's Memorial Auditorium in a beautiful production by North Carolina Opera.
The first thing you see as the curtain rises, as fidgety strings play a busy tune, is a neat little Japanese house with sliding partition walls and, on stage left, a flower-laden garden and path leading down to Nagasaki harbor, visible in the distant background. The scenery, designed by David P Gordon for the Sarasota Opera, is notable for its attention to detail, including weed grass around the stones that support the house. The setting is bright and cheerful, but subtle lighting changes by lighting designer Mark McCullough brought sadness and tragedy to the stage.
The costumes, designed for the Utah Symphony and Opera by Alice Bristow, are high quality though standard fare. The women's outfits in the wedding scene were a little gaudy in my estimation. Stage director E. Loren Meeker kept everything in its place and moving along smoothly although during the second act "Flower Duet," stage hands on the catwalk could have done a better job dropping the flower petals (or were they little butterflies?), which came down in clumps rather than magically as they should. O well, it was a minor thing….
The singing was excellent throughout, though the men seemed to have more difficulty projecting into the cavernous auditorium than did the female singers. Scott MacLeod led the chorus, mostly offstage, in some of the most magical moments in the opera. The "Humming Chorus," which bridges the two parts of Act II, surely coaxed tears down many a cheek.
Of the lead singers, Talise Trevigne, as Cio-Cio-San, was clearly the standout. With her pure and shimmering tones, she conveyed the innocence of the young girl. With astonishing vocal power, she portrayed the determined hope of the girl who saw any doubt as a betrayal. Her rendition of "Un bel di" was spot on. Her duet with Michael Brandenburg, the Pinkerton, in the closing scene of Act I, became the stuff of romantic rapture: both artists rose to incredible heights. In the second act "Flower Duet" with Lindsay Ammann, the Suzuki, the sky became filled with flower petals, their voices uniting in an exquisite anthem of hope.
Michael Sumuel was outstanding in the role of Sharpless. His rich bass-baritone voice conveyed sympathy and compassion for Cio-Cio-San and a subdued outrage for Pinkerton. Ian McEuen was a whimsical Goro, and Wei Wu as the Bonze was completely menacing. Rounding out the overall exceptional cast were Jesse Malgieri as Yamadori, Charles Hyland as the Imperial Commissioner, and Kate Farrar, heard in recital last month at St. Mary's School, as Kate Pinkerton.
Young Ella Fox, an ideal child, just about stole the show in the curtain calls. I have seen productions where the child was so rigid that the role could have been played by a puppet, and one production where the role actually was played by a puppet. She deserves special acclaim for a job well done.
In this opera, the orchestra tells the story as much as the characters do. Conductor Timothy Myers guided the skilled and inspired orchestra through a memorable performance, underscoring the dramatic intensity that is infused in Puccini's score.
Final kudos to Eric Mitchko, General Director of the North Carolina Opera, and all who support opera and work behind the scene to make it possible. When you experience a performance like this Butterfly, you know the real value of this magnificent art.
A second performance of Madama Butterfly is scheduled for Sunday, November 1, at 3:00 p.m., in Memorial Auditorium, Raleigh. For details., see the sidebar.