We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017


Matthew Singer, Mackenzie Whitney, Banlingyu Ban, Jordan Weatherston Pitts, Siobahn Sung, and Noah Spagnola

Until last night, there were five extant versions of Madama Butterfly, an opera with which Giacomo Puccini couldn't stop tinkering. Our scholarship is insufficient to describe for readers the exact differences among them but we do believe that the original version of 1904 was the one in which librettists Illica and Giacosa did not shrink from portraying Lieutenant Pinkerton as an arrogant and exploitative chap, a depiction that was later softened.

Last night at Baruch Performing Arts Center, the adventuresome and uncommonly successful Heartbeat Opera presented an adaptation of this masterpiece that was radical and ultimately highly affecting. Two issues about Madama Butterfly have always struck us and the production team managed to hit both nails right on their heads. The first issue is that we have never perceived this opera as a love story; au contraire, we have interpreted the story as one of child abuse. A grown man makes a "temporary marriage" with a fifteen-year-old girl and abandons her.

The second issue is our wondering, every time we have seen the opera, what would happen to a racially mixed two-year-old, torn from his mother and taken away by a couple he never met to a foreign land with a completely different culture. This is still happening today with international adoption agencies providing babies for childless couples here in the good old USA. By making little Sorrow important to this performance, Heartbeat Opera has opened up the story and made it both contemporary and also larger than the little house occupied by Cio-Cio San and her maid Suzuki.

The story opens with little Sorrow (Noah Spagnola) flung on his bed and googling on his laptop. He wants to know where he came from and what happened to his mother.  We don't know what his father and adoptive mother have already told him. He observes the unfolding story from the sidelines and at times he enters the scene, to join his mother and Suzuki as they look out at the harbor for his father's ship, and later to wipe the white paint from his mother's face--or perhaps her tears. At the end he tries to hold onto her.  When he returns to his bed he holds a pillow over his face. We feel his grief.

Our tears welled up too at several points in this emotionally devastating production. We thought the production team had eliminated Act I but it would show up after Act II as a dream or memory of Cio-Cio San in her long night of waiting. The performance began with Act II.  Butterfly believes that Pinkerton will return and tries to convince the skeptical Suzuki. Sharpless, the Consul, also tries to burst her bubble but she resists, believing only that he is coming back. Sharpless is dismayed when she brings out the baby, now 2 years old. Goro the matchmaker/pimp fails to interest her in Prince Yamadori, who was eliminated from the production, along with the Bonze and the Sisters, Cousins, and Aunts.

Then the events of 3 years earlier are replayed.  There is the unmitigated arrogance of Pinkerton, the typical Ugly American. He is enchanted and filled with lust.  Under her wedding kimono, we see Butterfly as a schoolgirl, dressed much in the fashion that is popular now in Japan. Pinkerton does not pin her to a board as a lepidopterist would but binds her in place with red ropes.

In Act III, Butterfly is not just sad but angry. She wields her dagger violently slashing out at the air.  She realizes she has been deceived. We imagine she is lashing out at Pinkerton. We see her give up her child but we are not sure if she kills herself.

This revolutionary reimagining of a classic was directed by Ethan Heard who is Co-Artistic Director of Heartbeat Opera. For the adaptation of the libretto, he was joined by Jacob Ashworth. who also accomplished the excellent translation with dramaturg Peregrine Heard. Movement was directed by Emma Crane Jaster with Momo Suzuki coaching the Japanese movement. Jacob Ashworth was Music Director and Conductor of a chamber orchestra comprising a string quartet plus an extra cello and a harp which contribute enormously to the texture. Daniel Schlosberg was responsible for the arrangement.

Now that you have a mental picture of what this team accomplished, let us add that the singing lived up to the production. We have not yet arrived at a position of appreciating color-blind casting so the fact that Butterfly and Suzuki were Asian was a big plus.  It would not have been so if their voices were not so first-rate.

Banlingyu Ban made a superb Butterfly with a soaring soprano and dramatic skills that conveyed the many shades of feeling that her character underwent, from childish excitement to the depths of despair. Siobahn Sung's pleasing mezzo and self-effacing acting made her the perfect supportive Suzuki. Their relationship made sense and was totally believable.

Mackenzie Whitney's performance as Pinkerton, the entitled and arrogant Lieutenant, may have been a bit over the top, but that just fed into our prior belief as noted above. He sang "Addio fiorito asil" quite well, convincing us that he was just a self-centered lout with his mostly phony remorse. We would love to hear his tenor in a sympathetic role. We were feeling so negative about the character, it was difficult to focus on the voice!

Matthew Singer's mature baritone was just right for the rather more sympathetic role of Sharpless, who has to clean up Pinkerton's messes. His scene with Butterfly was particularly fine.

Jordan Weatherston Pitts' tenor was pressed into service as the whiny slimy Goro--an excellent performance.

The final trio was overwhelmingly gorgeous. Actually, there was not a single musical moment that was any less.

Reid Thompson's set looked like a cage and was highly effective, as was Oliver Wason's lighting.

Valerie Therese Bart's costumes were perfect--the schoolgirl under the kimono showed us just what a 15-year-old girl would look like behind the "Orientalist" fantasy provided by geishas.

There were two choices of props with which we disagreed. When Sharpless comes to break the news to Butterfly, she brings out a doll that should have been much larger to signify a 2-year-old child.  And the new Mrs. Pinkerton was wheeled onstage as a life-size mannequin. She might have better been left to the imagination.

Those two tiny quibbles aside, we recommend this outstanding revisionist Butterfly without reservations. Those new to opera can get a good feel for the musical magic that helps to tell a story in a brief 90 minutes. Experienced opera goers will get a fresh take on an old warhorse. Do go!

(c) meche kroop

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