Sunday, July 18, 2010

Madame Butterfly takes wing in Santa Fe

Revival confirms the work's enduring relevance

Santa Fe, New Mexico
Friday, July 16, 2010

Review by Rodney Punt

The plot could not be simpler: American naval officer jilts Japanese wife who later commits suicide. But Puccini’s Madame Butterfly was not at all easy to compose, nor initially to stage. For all its subsequent popularity, its premiere was a flop at La Scala in 1904. Puccini felt the need to tweak it obsessively for two more decades.

Madama Butterfly can easily lapse into picture-book sentimentality, and the work has been tarred in some quarters as a period piece - pretty but passé. Contemporary stagings must straddle potential minefields: depicting cross-cultural encounters without succumbing to kitschy stereotypes; addressing modern skepticism of some character motivations while staying true to the work’s emotional intensity.

Attempts to walk this line, even in top-tier productions, occasionally stumble. Robert Wilson’s Kabuki concept at the LA Opera was classy and lovely to look at, but its human dimension so bloodless as to drain the truth from Verismo.

Casting Cio-Cio-San (aka Madame Butterfly) is, frankly, a task. The eponymous heroine must croon as a lyric waif in the first act, then wail tempestuously as the jilted woman in the second, all the while possessing the emotive ability to convince us of her steadfast faithfulness to a man clearly seen by all - on and off stage - as a first class cad. Likewise her Lieutenant Pinkerton must be thoroughly despicable but retain an ounce of redemptive potential for a wrenching last scene.

Enter the Santa Fe Opera. Butterfly has been a special province of the company since its inception in 1957. It has opened each of the Opera’s three stages, and it launched this season, after a 12-year absence, with a new production dedicated to the company's visionary founder, John Crosby.

With top-flight singing and acting, an inspired stage direction by Lee Blakely, and an insightful stewardship of a clearly articulated orchestra and chorus under Antony Walker (Susanne Sheston, Chorus Master), this Butterfly triumphs. Potential vulnerabilities are avoided, and the work’s enduring psychological impact and musical riches have been validated for a new generation. Just as important, higher standards of interpretation are set.

For the fated home on a Nagasaki hilltop, Jean-Marc Puissant’s scenic design employs a central cube that rotates on its axis and migrates around the stage in varying perspectives, in and out of doors. Cio-Cio-San’s tragically fleeting ties with Pinkerton and her family and community contribute to her increasingly isolated and impoverished stasis within it. Japanese screens reveal and obscure many of the interactions and emotional states. Rick Fisher’s lighting alternates day and night to mirror Cio-Cio-San’s own hope and despair.

The passage of time is hinted at with the sudden appearance of telephone poles in Act II, a reminder of the rapid transformation of a hermetic Japan after the visit of Admiral Perry’s naval flotilla, an intimidating modernization that parallels Cio-Cio-San’s personal Americanization under the influence of the blustery Pinkerton.

Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes ably establish the contrasting cultural identities of characters, revealing the gentle beauty of the Japanese aesthetic in contrast to the lack of nuance in its American counterpart. Facial make-up studiously (and wisely) avoids orientalizing the “Japanese” cast with pasty skin-tones or painted eye-slants.

The emphasis overall is on emotional veracity over ritual, naturalness over pictorialism.

As Cio-Cio-San, Kelly Kaduce brings an amber-tinted soprano, particularly rich at mid-register, to her deeply felt, dramatically satisfying interpretation. Whether coming to grips with Pinkerton, warding off suitors and slanderers, or chastising her maid Suzuki for her lack of faith, Kaduce’s is a full-blooded Butterfly - strong, stoic, and vulnerable only in private. She is also a hands-on mother. Singing at full voice, this Butterfly picks up her son Trouble (Makai Pope), and carries him around as she converses with him.

Waiting for Pinkerton all night, she sits erect, motionless, in Zen-like determination before singing with aching pathos. (An American flag scene later induces tears, even in jaded eyes.)

This is a bravura performance to treasure.

Brandon Jovanovich is no less impressive. His silvery-bright, powerfully ringing tenor, with a visage of pug nose and jutting jaw, enhance a stage swagger that nails the character of the domineering, superficially charming, but ultimately boorish Pinkerton. The navy officer's gauche manhandling of Butterfly’s precious ancestral dolls is intrusive; his bar-style toasting at the wedding is painful to behold, especially in contrast with the deliberate and delicate tea ceremony of his wife’s family.

After such antics, Pinkerton’s emotional breakdown at the return encounter with Butterfly, his American wife in attendance, is all the more pathetic.

Jovanovich owns this role, his contribution an essential element to the tragedy.

Secondary roles are also strong. Baritone James Westman’s Sharpless is sympathetic right-mindedness itself.

Elizabeth DeShong’s lushly-timbered mezzo-soprano provides the necessary robustness for Suzuki’s heroic support, and occasional endurance, of Butterfly’s stubbornness.

Harold Wilson’s Bonze brings fierce wrath to his denunciation of Butterfly’s religious conversion. Keith Jameson’s Goro is the perfect snake of a marriage broker. Matthew Hanscom’s elegant but slimy suitor, Prince Yamadori, could never convince even a more practical and compliant Butterfly to go with the flow. Remaining cast members perform admirably.

Great art has a way of extending its message into other spheres. Madame Butterfly has always been one of the most popular operas the the repertory. But this production recertifies its continuing relevance as well.

Strong breezes blew through the seats of the open-sided Crosby Theatre all Friday evening. Could they be the winds of change urging a dose of humility in America’s constant pursuit of global hegemony? Can we afford any more Pinkertons in a realigning, multicultural world?

If Madame Butterfly strikes the chord that will help answer these questions, its revival will serve humanity as well as art.


Madame Butterfly runs through August 26, 2010, at the Santa Fe Opera. Tickets: Santa Fe Opera

Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

All photos are by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera


Unknown said...

Does anyone know why a contemporary 50 star US flag was used? Certainly it must have been purposeful, the company could have found or produced the appropriate flag for the period.

Rodney Punt said...

Good question. Maybe the SFO used a contempo flag because they knew sharpies like you would spot it.

Anyway, good eye Ken Z.