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.

Tuesday, August 14, 2018


Ana Maria Martinez and Joshua Guerrero in the final scene of Madama Butterfly at the Santa Fe Opera
(photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera)

We have been known to get a bit moist in the eye at the opera, but the last time we were reduced to bawling like a baby was in 2010 when Santa Fe Opera mounted Lee Blakeley's production  of Madama Butterfly. The tall and handsome tenor Brandon Jovanovich towered over the tiny soprano Kelly Kaduce, emphasizing the total imbalance of power in this exploitative relationship between an arrogant American naval lieutenant and an innocent and deluded 15-year-old Japanese geisha. Last night we saw a revival of this production, astutely directed by Matthew Ozawa and we completely "lost it".

With eight years of additional opera going experience, we realized that it was not only the terrific performances that produced such grief but Puccini's music, so affectingly played by the Santa Fe Orchestra under the baton of Maestro John Fiore. The program indicates that we are seeing the Brescia version but we thought we were hearing Puccini's original 1904 version, the La Scala premiere of which was considered so unsuccessful that Puccini revised the opera in many respects. Indeed, there are five iterations extant, but this one is, in our opinion, the most powerful.

Librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa pulled no punches in their depiction of an arrogant sexist American lieutenant, here performed by tenor Joshua Guerrero. He made his character so loathsome that he was booed at the curtain call. There was no doubt that it was the character being booed, and not the performance, which was marked by fine Italianate phrasing and topnotch acting. His "Addio, fiorito asil" was gorgeously sung; if it was meant to evoke sympathy for his remorse, it failed. This character is totally involved with himself and his own feelings with little concern for his abandoned bride.

The role of Cio-Cio-San was magnificently performed by soprano Ana Maria Martinez whose "Un bel di vedremo" deserved all the applause it received. Ms. Martinez is not all that shorter than Mr. Guerrero; nonetheless, her acting achieved the same result as in the benchmark performance that affected us so greatly eight years ago. Some interesting directorial touches evoked the thought that Butterfly's suicide not only represented "death with honor" but also could be perceived as an act of anger, what with all the violently overturned chairs. This amounts to a Westernized psychoanalytic view of suicide. 

Aside from the strength of the depiction of the characters, what makes this version so powerful is the elimination of the intermission between Act II and Act III. Instead, the audience has the opportunity to join Butterfly in the overnight vigil as she waits for Pinkerton. The melancholy "Humming Chorus" sets the stage for our emotional devastation. The feeling of dread mounted in our chest and we felt ourself trembling. The confrontation between Butterfly and the new Mrs. Pinkerton, ably enacted by mezzo-soprano Hannah Hagerty, added to the dread. The sight of little Trouble pointing his dagger at Pinkerton next to the body of his dead mother was one of the most chilling sights we have seen at the opera. His future seems like one more aspect of the tragedy.

Baritone Nicholas Pallesen had the good fortune to portray the wise and kindly U.S. Consul Sharpless. His voice was splendid and his dramatic portrayal was filled with appropriate gesture. The poor man was unable to convince Pinkerton to behave better; nor was he able to reason with Butterfly. We completely believed him in the role.

The other realist of the evening was Suzuki, Butterfly's servant, performed to perfection by the excellent mezzo-soprano Megan Marino. Suzuki knows the score but cannot get Butterfly to face reality. Her loyalty is above reproach and she endures a bit of abuse from the angry Butterfly.

Another powerful performance was that of the angry Bonze, realized by bass Soloman Howard who commanded the stage. Tenor Matthew DiBattista made a very slimy Goro. Baritone Kenneth Stavert played the role of Prince Yamadori without the customary excess of foolishness; this was a fine idea because it emphasized the idea that Butterfly's rejection was based upon her delusion that Pinkerton would return and resume their marriage, not on the idea that Yamadori was a poor choice.

We were delighted to see other Apprentice Singers onstage. Bass-baritone Erik van Heyningen made an excellent Imperial Commissioner, and bass Colin Ramsey was equally fine as the Registrar, both of whom officiated at the marriage. 

Maestro Fiore's conducting presented the music we know and love, along with some music that had been cut when Puccini revised the opera. Puccini successfully combined lyrical Western melodies with Asian folks songs. The chorus, under the direction of Susanne Sheston, sang beautifully and intelligibly, even when offstage.

The set design by Jean-Marc Puissant gave us every possible Japanese signifier including cherry blossoms, lanterns, and shoji panels for Butterfly's home. During the overture, the house itself took shape as panels were carried on and installed. The audience could readily grasp the theme of impermanence. We noticed that the interval of three years was marked by some modernization by way of utility poles with electrical lines. The 20th c. had arrived.

We always have a small quibble and here it has to do with the lighting design of Rick Fisher who missed the chance to show the dawn of which Suzuki sings. The sky never brightened. But the street lights did turn off.

Brigitte Reiffenstuel's costume design was traditional.

This is the Madama Butterfly that we will remember and cherish.  We hope we will not have to wait another eight years to see it again.

(c) meche kroop

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