|Brandie Sutton and Hyona Kim (photo by Jen Joyce Davis)
In Puccini's hit opera Madama Butterfly, the eponymous tragic heroine expresses her fears to the American naval lieutenant that in the USA, butterflies are caught and pinned. Lieutenant Pinkerton assures her that is to prevent them from flying away. He doesn't tell her that they die.
For us, this story of a 15-year-old geisha, high born but fallen on hard times, is a story of rampant colonialism and child abuse. It is a love story only in the eyes of "povera Butterfly" who is deluded by wishful thinking; she believes that Pinkerton really loves her when he has only purchased her services along with the house in Nagasaki, an arrangement that favors only him and perhaps Goro, the marriage broker who is nothing more than a pimp.
We have no quarrel with those who see it in a different light but we stand by our opinion. Indeed, Puccini himself was obliged to modify the original 1904 La Scala version which, we believe, having seen it many years ago, was too strong for the public to accept. Conventional wisdom suggests that the first version was unpopular because of inadequate rehearsal but we are left wondering. Puccini wrote four more versions until he was satisfied. Or until the public was satisfied.
Last night, we heard a performance of the opera by a superb cast of young artists--the culmination of six weeks of intense study in Prelude to Performance, Martina Arroyo's decade-long program devoted to developing the talents of those fortunate enough to be accepted. Master classes and coaching are provided in all areas of performance from movement to language to character creation.
We believe it is Ms. Arroyo's emphasis on the latter which enabled us to see artists in non-traditional casting and to forget the inconsistencies. Try to imagine an American naval officer of the early 20th c. and the American consul both portrayed by Asians! Imagine a Caucasian Prince Yamadori! An Afro-American Butterfly! (Of course, Ms. Arroyo accomplished that feat years ago.)
The entire affair somehow worked, thanks not only to the conviction of the cast members but to the superb direction of Gina Lapinski who provided concrete motivation for each action of each character. Stereotypes were avoided--i.e. Prince Yamadori was anything but the clown he is usually portrayed as. There were no inebriated relatives celebrating the wedding but a chorus of beautiful maidens in kimonos the colors of flowers, raising their voices in delicious harmony, directed by the excellent Noby Ushida. The chorus was heard again in the "humming chorus" at the end of Act II and we have never heard it performed better.
Typical of Prelude to Performance productions, the set was simple but effective--shoji screens suggesting the hilltop house, some flowers, and some panels suspended from on high. Meganne George's set design was significantly enhanced by the evocative lighting by Joshua Rose. In the final scene of hara-kiri, the colors disappear into chiaroscuro with the desperate act taking place behind the screen in silhouette--surprisingly more chilling than the usual "out there" bloody deed.
The singing was excellent for the most part. Not only did Brandie Sutton grow in stature as the story progressed but her voice bloomed into great beauty. In Act II, her"Un bel di" left the audience astonished with a chorus of "bravas" that might have been heard from Lexington Ave. to Park Ave.
One could not have imagined a better Suzuki than Hyona Kim whose rich mezzo has impressed us on several prior occasions. Every movement, every reaction, every gesture and facial expression revealed depths of character in a fresh manner.
Baritone Young Kwang Yoo made an effective U.S. Consul Sharpless whose thankless duty as the voice of reason goes unheard. But his own voice was very much heard and a pleasure to hear.
Yet another baritone left us wanting a second hearing. Alexander Boyd was regal as Prince Yamadori, the much married aristocrat who would like to add Cio-Cio San to his list. We enjoyed his regal bearing and fine voice, relieved that we were not subject to so-called comic relief.
In the role of Goro, tenor Alexander Lee created a character not a caricature. It was clear that he was an opportunist who lost no opportunity to ingratiate himself. He has a fine instrument and a lovely legato, filling each vowel to its proper metric value.
As The Bonze, Hangzhi Yao, a bass-baritone, impressed us with his onstage authority and deep rich voice. Lindsay Mecher in the small role of Kate Pinkerton appeared suitably uncomfortable. We hoped that she would make a good mother to little Dolore (the adorable Akari Wientzen) and spitefully wanted her to make her husband miserable for the rest of his life!
Tenor Taehwan Ku had the thankless role of Pinkerton--the entitled exploiter, the child abuser. At the end of Act III, when he sang "Addio, fiorito asil" we could not bring ourselves to pity him. He's a coward who makes a mess and expects other people to clean up after him and cries crocodile tears. The fact that we took the story so seriously is just further evidence of the artists' skill in portraying John Luther Long's tragic story, so beautifully transformed into the libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.
Should you be inspired to share our intense involvement in this excellent production, there will be one more performance Saturday night at the Kaye Playhouse of Hunter College. Should you be inspired to give financial assistance to the Martina Arroyo Foundation and contribute to the development of these young artists, please keep in mind that it is a rare program that not only provides the six-week training gratis, but also provides stipends for the young artists. Now that's what we call generosity!
(c) meche kroop