Sunday, July 1, 2018

Santa Fe’s ‘Butterfly’ Portrays Land of the Setting Sun

Kelly Kaduce as Cio-Cio San

REVIEW: Santa Fe Opera

John Crosby Theatre

When Madame Butterfly premiered in Milan 1904, Puccini was at the height of his compositional powers. This perennial masterpiece may be seen in contemporary terms as sexist, racist and sordidly insensitive, with its theme of a young, vulnerable woman being sold to an American naval officer. Indeed, on its opening night the opera was greeted with widespread audience discontent. The character of Pinkerton was considered so nasty and distasteful, the role had to be expanded to make sure tenors would be willing to play it. But the music remains timeless.

Told from the point of view of an Asian woman, the work was adapted from a short story by American John Luther Long (who bore an uncanny physical resemblance to Puccini), which was inspired by the famous French novelist Pierre Loti’s semi-autobiographical Madame Chrysanthème. (Loti was also a naval officer - perhaps even a gentleman - and an almost exact contemporary of Puccini.) Legendary American playwright and stage director David Belasco then adapted Long’s story into a play, Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan, which formed the basis for Puccini’s opera. 

The opera’s 1904 premiere was a disaster for many reasons, not least of which was public outrage at star soprano Storchio’s affair with the conductor, Toscanini. But such occurrences do not necessarily portend catastrophe for an operatic oeuvre (witness Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, which bombed at its first performance and went on to become the composer’s most popular work). Puccini ignored the shocked, discontented reactions of his opening night audience as he went back to the drawing board to work with librettists Giacosa and Illica, and the second version was performed to great success. Three subsequent renderings were made, until the final, “standard” version most often performed today was completed in 1907. In all of the later representations, the composer refused to tone down the harsh realities of the story.

The most compelling reason why Madame Butterfly has become one of the most popular operas of all time, even in our current era of social awareness, is that despite its often cringeworthy character portrayals and plot developments, the music transcends all. One overcomes one’s distaste for the exploitation depicted, simply because the music’s radiance obliterates any dramatic negativity. This Santa Fe production proved worthy of the music’s luminosity.

No matter how we view her plight in contemporary terms, we identify with Butterfly; not only her vulnerability but her fierce determination to protect her child against all odds. In addition to a lovely stage presence, soprano Kelly Kaduce projected a convincing dramatic attachment to the character of Cio-Cio San. Kaduce, who has proved herself equally at home in traditional and contemporary repertoire, was mesmerizing to watch. She demonstrated a deep understanding of the gamut of Butterfly’s emotions, transforming from the artless, inexperienced teenager with a naively expectant view of the world into the bitter, more mature woman; yet somehow maintaining a modicum of childlike innocence, up until the moment when she comprehends the extent of Pinkerton’s betrayal. 

Vocally, however, Kaduce was uneven. A wide vibrato detracted from the beauty of her phrasing, and though some of her high notes came across with conviction, she was unable to sustain them effectively.

In his Santa Fe Opera debut, former SFeO apprentice A.J. Glueckert made a valuable contribution as Pinkerton. Vocally, he was admirably consistent from top to bottom. In the first act, his voice sounded overly aggressive and forced, especially in the love scene; but in the last act, the beautiful aspects of his voice came through, and he was a pleasure to hear.  Nicholas Pallesen’s SFeO debut as Sharpless was excellent. Another former apprentice, Pallesen is also a motivational speaker, and it showed. He brought dramatic urgency to a role that is often underplayed, and his top notes projected well.
A. J. Glueckert as Pinkerton

Even from his short span onstage as the Bonze, American bass Soloman Howard made a lasting impression with depth of his low notes and the enormity of his voice. Tenor Matthew Dibattista gave a sensitive portrayal of the marriage broker Goro: not as gritty as is often done.

Also a former SFeO apprentice, Megan Marino made a noteworthy debut as Suzuki. Her voice was not opulent but it had a lovely quality: neither too heavy nor too light, it sounded effortless and she showed herself capable of capturing the subtleties in what is largely a thankless role. Marino's portrayal of the unconditionally devoted servant was heartbreaking. Her angst was palpable, and she made the contrast between her own grasp on reality versus that of her mistress painfully clear without being too obvious.

In this production, originally conceived by the late Lee Blakeley, director Matthew Ozawa, in his SFeO debut, kept the action flowing, and there were nice touches here and there in the interaction between the characters. At issue was his decision to have the child handle the knife after Butterfly’s suicide; it was inappropriate, and more than a bit jarring.

Megan Marino as Suzuki
Conductor John Fiore did a creditable job of keeping a consistent flow in Puccini’s score. His tempi were effective, and he kept a good volume balance between pit and stage, so that the singers for the most part were easily heard.

Jean-Marc Puissant’s bold set designs were the star of the production. He combined the minimalist lines of Butterfly’s traditional-styled house, framed by a hint of cherry blossoms, and set them against a sky with a large, golden globe symbolizing the “rising sun” that has played such an important role in Japanese mythology and religion (the Japanese Emperor is thought to be the direct descendant of sun goddess). The disappearance of sun and the appearance of the full moon portend Cio-Cio San’s undoing. The glowing background and exquisite appearance of the Shoji screens of Butterfly’s abode in the first act provides a stark and effective contrast to the glaringly contemporary electric lights adjoining her downtrodden house in the second and third acts.

Rick Fisher’s nuanced lighting complemented the sets beautifully, combining with the subtle changes of the theatre’s natural background of sky, clouds and mountains to create stunning visuals. Especially effective was the first act entrance of the Japanese women, silhouetted against the glowing sun in the background. Belasco would have approved of the striking sunsets set against the dramatic backdrop of the Santa Fe mountain ranges.

Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s costumes, which debuted in Santa Fe’s 2010 Madame Butterfly, were fittingly traditional and pleasing to the eye.

What was puzzling in this production was the use of a variant of Puccini’s score that resulted in added characters, music and texts beyond what is traditionally performed in this opera. These additions detracted from the flow of the action,  especially in the first act scene with Butterfly’s relatives, and made the performance unnecessarily long.

Santa Fe Opera's Madame Butterfly is performed through Aug. 24.


All photos by Ken Howard, courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.

Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

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