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For a cathartic night out at the opera, this season opener of Madama Butterfly for the Asheville Lyric Opera would have few productions to rival its beauty and powerful emotional torque. Stage Director Jon Truitt (also director of last year’s The Magic Flute at ALO) has crafted a beautiful show which maximized every inch of the Diana Wortham Theatre stage. Robert Hart Baker as conductor elicited impressive warmth and intensity from both singers and the small pit orchestra. The lead singers were spot on in their casting and supremely evocative of that curious time in Nagasaki when a geisha was fatally matched to a roving American sailor.
Giacomo Puccini, the greatest composer of Italian opera after Verdi, based his opera on the book by John L. Long and the play by David Belasco. The first performance was at La Scala in Milan in 1904, when the opera’s setting would have been “in the present day.” By then, he had composed La Bohème and Tosca and was at the top of his game. The exoticism worked into the score of Madama Butterfly results in some of the most beautiful and original music Puccini ever wrote. Its exploration of the theme of cultural identity (with its intractable pull) through the prism of a woman at odds with her own culture, and her fate at the hands of a man she thought would save her is profoundly intriguing.
Internationally acclaimed soprano Jennifer Davison was simply ravishing in the title role. Her beautiful voice is a marvel of fluidity and warmth which, whether singing in a parlando or in soaring lines (“Un bel dì vedremo”) can move the listener to tears. Her dramatic sense is simply remarkable — her timing, gesturing, and facial expressions all serve to portray the hapless, yet morally unwavering Butterfly. The dramatic gifts of Brian Cheney as Navy Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton were also impressive, as he displayed a range of emotions, from self-serving icy detachment to wholesale remorse by the opera’s end. There were many beautiful moments in his singing, especially the impassioned love duet with Butterfly toward the end of Act 1.
The supporting characters were wonderful. Mezzo-soprano Dawn Piece portrayed the faithful Suzuki, servant to Cio-Cio San; tenor Scott Joiner was the perfect personification of the bustling and manipulative marriage broker Goro. Mark Owen Davis was Sharpless, the American consul, who adeptly portrayed the difficulties of being both friend to Pinkerton and his messenger to Butterfly. Roberto Flores was the Imperial Commissioner. Elias Notus sung the roles of Bonzo, Uncle to Butterfly, and Yamadori, her wealthy suitor. Andrea Blough was Kate Pinkerton and also chorus master (ah, that gorgeous “Humming Chorus” at the end of Act 2!). Adorable Ariana Zinke was Dolore, the small son of Pinkerton and Butterfly.
It was gratifying to note that many in the cast have local ties to our area, and hopefully will return to the ALO stage. Kudos go to David Craig Starkey, the General and Artistic Director, for his dedicated vision of how a fine, local opera company can enrich the cultural life of western NC.