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Piedmont Opera opened its 37th season with an outstanding performance of Giacomo Puccini's tragic portrayal of mismatched cultures, Madama Butterfly. Superb singing by all the principals, a near perfect orchestra, gorgeous lighting, and a monumental score, impeccably directed by Maestro James Allbritten, all combined to make this a memorable occasion not to be missed! The opera will be repeated Sunday afternoon at 2:00 p.m.and Tuesday evening at 7:30 p.m.
I was struck how anachronistic the plot seems to the contemporary American, honed by years of political correctness. In it, a brash young naval officer, Lieutenant Pinkerton, woos and weds a 15-year-old Japanese geisha (Cio-Cio San or Butterfly) with no intent to remain with her. Indeed, he boasts of the day when he will marry a real American wife. Beautifully sung by tenor Isaac Hurtado, B. F. Pinkerton slouched, dressed sloppily, sang with his hands in his pockets, and put his feet up in front of company. His convincing "ugly American" character earned him boos at the final curtain as well as cheers and bravos.
Jill Gardner was superb as the tragic Madama Pinkerton, as she reminded the American Consul when he called her "Madama Butterfly." Her voice is rich and warm over the entire range. Her famous aria "Un bel di…" was a show stopper! And she acts well, as in the 10-minute entr'acte between the sunset of Act II and the sunrise of Act III, during which she mimed over the gorgeous wordless chorus without ever becoming repetitious, aided by beautiful lighting transitions designed by Norman Coates. Musically and visually, this is one of the highlights of the entire production, with no words or actions to interrupt the timelessness of the moment.
Butterfly's nurse and personal servant, Suzuki, sung by mezzo-soprano Stephanie Davis, was a warm and touching character on stage and is graced with a beautiful and powerful voice. She is also a fine actress, reeling from blows and prostrating herself agilely. She was at her most tender when she brought out the cute young 2-year-old Pinkerton son (Gabe McNair Deibler) to his mother.
The voice of reason, who tries to straighten out the clueless Pinkerton and later to warn the hapless Cio-Cio San of impending tragedy, was the American Consul, Sharpless, sung with power and finesse by baritone Robert Overman, who showed a touching moment of compassion and warmth when he was introduced to Butterfly's son.
Two Ninja Noh ghost characters, not in the original opera, appear at critical moments and dance a slow stylized dance whose purpose seems to be to handle stage props – in particular, the dagger with which Butterfly's father had committed hara kiri, and with which she will eventually commit jigaki (feminine version of suicide). The dark and mysterious dancers were Elizabeth Fowle and Simon Hernandez, and were the conception of stage director Cynthia Stokes,who was also responsible for the delicately handled entr'acte mentioned above.
Other characters, incidental to the drama but important to the timing and pacing of the plot were the Commissioner (Matthew Arnold, baritone), who performed the marriage; and Goro (Brian Harris, tenor), who arranged the marriage and who tried to marry the abandoned Mme. Butterfly to another rich client, Prince Yamadori. Yamadori was delightfully sung by David Weigle, who also sang the wrathful Bonze, Cio-Cio San's devout uncle who was offended by her conversion to Christianity. Kristin Schwecke sang the few lines of Kate Pinkerton, the Lieutenant's "real" wife, with grace and dignity.
The Piedmont Opera Chorus had a role in the opening wedding scene but was featured off stage during the entr'acte and sounded eerily beautiful. The opening fugue in the orchestra was lush and dark. The Puccini score pays tribute to French composer Claude Debussy in the many whole tone passages and the frequent augmented chords, an "orientalism" Puccini was to develop further in his last opera, the Chinese drama, Turandot. Astute listeners will spot five examples of "The Star Spangled Banner," which in 1904, when the opera was first performed, was not yet the United States' National Anthem!
Realistic sets (lent by the Sarasota Opera) situated the action of the opera on a hill outside the port city of Nagasaki, Japan. Only a grotesque oversized cherry branch marred the otherwise idyllic setting for the drama.
As noted, the opera will be repeated 11/2 and 11/4. For details, see the sidebar.