The Greensboro Opera Company celebrated the start of its silver anniversary season by presenting one of the most beloved and enduring operas, Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini. Since this was my first visit to Greensboro's War Memorial Auditorium, I could not tell whether the finely dressed ladies and gentlemen were in their furs and tuxedos especially for this milestone occasion or if this is the norm for the town's opera lovers. I found it quite a jarring juxtaposition as I looked around at all the lovely people entering the cavernous, institutionally-inspired auditorium, quite larger but very much reminiscent of my high school auditorium. Apparently I am not alone in this impression as all the seats were plastered with notices urging patrons to vote "yes" on a $36 million bond referendum to (basically) completely gut and renovate War Memorial.
Puccini's great opera owes its genesis to his attendance at a play by David Belasco in London in 1900. Despite his almost complete inability to understand English, Puccini was so taken with the female lead that he immediately secured the rights from the playwright and set to work on what would be one of his greatest creations. The premiere in 1904 was a total fiasco – later found to be a staged reaction by a rival composer! — but after some tweaking of the second act it became a huge success.
It is quite interesting that, like in Puccini's other great opera La Boheme, there is no orchestral overture in the traditional sense in Madama Butterfly. Instead we get a brief, exhilarating, fugal curtain raiser that gives the audience just enough time to take in the set and shut up before the action begins. Maestro Valery Ryvkin conducted an exemplary orchestra which consisted primarily of members of the Greensboro Symphony. Although the orchestra played as well as any I have heard, the acoustics in this hall are so dismal that I was reminded of my first AM transistor radio. The set (on loan from the Cincinnati Opera) was one of the big stars of the production. It gave an authentic feel of Japanese design and scenery without being kitschy or condescending. The one basic set remained throughout the production but with enough lighting and costuming changes to not get tiresome.
Michael Hayes, as Lt. B.F. Pinkerton, an American naval officer stationed in Nagasaki looking to rent a home, servants and a woman, immediately set the tone. His bright, finely projecting tenor voice portrayed the power, dominance and arrogance of American military might. Kaori Sato, singing the lead Cio-Cio-San, made her entrance on some very high passages. Early nerves and shakiness were the probable cause of an extremely unattractive, wobbly, wide vibrato where you could have picked any one of many notes for any of her pitches. However, the fear that this would be a very long evening where listening to Butterfly would be the aural equivalent of watching a tennis match soon abated.
Sato was perfect for this part. She had just the right persona and gradually grabbed everyone's emotions as she came to grips with the unbelievable callousness of her American lover who tossed her aside for his "real" American wife. She was especially powerful and emotive at the start of the second act where she sang for an extended time lamenting the absence of her cad of a husband. Jae-Eun Paik as Suzuki, servant to Butterfly, was equally convincing, with a girlish but strong vocal style and considerable acting chops.
One of the real delights of this production was the outstanding chorus, under the direction of Robert Wells (who also sang the roles of Yamadori and the Commissioner). There were several onstage moments that were admirable, but the highlight was the famous "humming chorus," for which they were positioned offstage. Elizabeth Grayson's brief appearance as the "real" American wife was a ho-hum affair as her few lines were barely audible.
It is interesting to again hear some of the most famous melodies ever conceived — and to realize how relatively quickly they come and go. It is testimony to Puccini's genius that what a lesser composer would have milked for an entire act is all in a day's work for this master. Of course, the ending where Butterfly gives up her son to her GI jerk and then stabs herself to death is perhaps the most poignant and heart-wrenching in all of opera. Sato, as Butterfly, literally went out on a well-acted and convincing curtain closer to the sounds of audience sniffling.