Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Opera Colorado: "Madama Butterfly"—November 2014

Xiu Ying Li (r) and Dinyar Vania
©Matthew Staver for Opera Colorado

Opera Colorado opened its current season with Madama Butterfly, set in early 20th century Japan and one of Giacomo Puccini's most enduring and often-performed operas.  This is the fourth time the company has staged the tale of the doomed relationship between 15-year-old Cio-Cio San and American naval officer B.F. Pinkerton, whose 999-year-lease (with a month-to-month option to cancel) extends both to his possession of the house in Nagasaki as well as to the “bride” chosen for him to live there.

It is a rare opera where the title character is not also the star, and Madama Butterfly is no exception.  Opera Colorado endlessly publicized its signing of Chinese soprano Xiu Ying Li (”Shuying Li”) to play Cio-Cio San, especially since Ms. Li performed the role to considerable acclaim some years back with New York City Opera—a performance whose PBS telecast earned her an Emmy® award.  While a suspension of disbelief is clearly required for any soprano who tackles this role—no teenager could ever hope to meet its vocal demands—the most accomplished Cio-Cio Sans have managed to capture her sweetness of voice despite being decades older than the young woman being portrayed onstage.  Ms. Li’s powerful and occasionally penetrating voice—especially in its upper register—and her decision to show the title character as someone fully in command of her destiny, while much in line with modern-day interpretations of the role, seemed to run counter to the characterization intended by Puccini and librettists Illica and Giacosa.

Tenor Dinyar Vania was Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, the young naval lieutenant oftentimes portrayed as a cad, a villain, and the personification of the Ugly American.  The duet between Pinkerton and Butterfly that follows their exchange of wedding vows clearly illustrates the vast differences between their respective cultures and the way they see their impending life together.  The soprano sings of romantic love, while the tenor is clearly more focused on the carnal pleasures that await him.  Great tenors are exceedingly rare, and good ones are hard to come by.  As Pinkerton, Mr. Vania was adequate; he hit all the notes and played the role with more dignity than caricature.  When it comes to a company that possesses a limited budget for top singers, sometimes that is sufficient.

As has been the case with Opera Colorado the past few years, the best voices in this production were found among the supporting roles.  The character of Sharpless is constructed to echo the East-versus-West conflict inherent in the plot.  As the U.S. consul he is responsible for encouraging Pinkerton to accept Cio-Cio San as his concubine, while becoming ever more aware of the seriousness with which the girl views what is obviously a temporary arrangement.  Baritone John Hancock sang the role with masterful intonation and just the right amount of passion, his onstage presence carefully balanced between his authority as a consul and his humanity as Pinkerton’s conscience.  Mezzo-soprano Erica Brookhyser was marvelous as Suzuki, Cio-Cio San’s servant and confidante.  Puccini elected not to provide this character with her own aria, but for a supporting role she has some beautifully moving music.  Ms. Brookhyser’s duet with Li (“Flower Duet”) that concludes Act Two was the vocal highlight of the performance.  As one of the few singers not making his Opera Colorado debut in this production, baritone Jared Guest was yet another welcome addition to the cast.  He was Prince Yamadori, the prospective suitor who is turned away because Cio-Cio San is convinced Pinkerton will return to her after a three-year absence (and the birth of her son, Trouble).

There are relatively few directorial challenges to Butterfly, especially since the entire opera takes place in a single setting—Cio-Cio San’s house.  There is also only one intermission, with Acts Two and Three separated by the famous “Humming Chorus” and an absence of stage action, as the two women quietly await Pinkerton’s arrival.  The opera’s closing scene is Puccini at his best, a composer who knew how to twist an audience’s emotions toward tragedy (Mimi’s demise in La boheme; the title character’s leap of death in Tosca) or triumph (Minnie and Dick riding off into the sunset in La fanciulla del West; Calaf’s successful wooing in Turandor).  But as directed by Keturah Stickann, the opera concludes on a flat and relatively emotionless note.  Even though most operagoers know what’s coming, the depth of musical drama and the action that culminates in Cio-Cio San’s suicide—she would rather die than survive after surrendering her son to Pinkerton and his American wife—has been done with greater passion in previous productions.

It was an unnecessarily disappointing ending.  On a much brighter note, the orchestra performed to its standard level of excellence.  Under maestro Ari Pelto’s baton they played with balance and sensitivity, in general doing a much better job of contrasting crescendos and pianissimos than some of the principal singers managed to achieve.  In his Opera Colorado debut, chorus master Andres Cladera should be proud of the cohesiveness shown by his small cadre of performers, both in their onstage and offstage singing.
The final two performances of Madama Butterfly are Friday evening (November 21) and Sunday afternoon (November 23).  Limited tickets remain for both performances.  The company concludes its two-production season in May 2015 with four performances of The Magic Flute (Die Zauberflöte) by W.A. Mozart, sung in German with English and Spanish subtitles.
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