Friday, July 25, 2014

In Cincinnati Opera production, Puccini's opera of cultures at cross purposes proves as fresh and affecting as the title-role performance

The wedding celebration in the first act of "Madama Butterfly"
"Madama Butterfly" may be the most intense and protracted of Giacomo Puccini's operatic studies of women as victims. It's got the musical quality needed to support a lengthy unfolding of the title character's tragedy: a teenager in pre-modern Japan casting all her hopes of a better life upon an arranged marriage with an American naval officer.


There was an admirable gravity and patience with the inevitable gathering of doom in the second act, superbly coordinated by conductor Ramon Tebar and stage director Marc Verzatt. The dramatic irony of Butterfly's darkening fate after a faithful nightlong vigil leading to a beautiful dawn was gorgeously realized in Cincinnati Opera's production, which opened at Music Hall on Thursday night.

But as lovers of "Madama Butterfly" well know, even as they are once again drawn into the story, Cio-Cio-San (as she is known in her native Nagasaki) has cut herself loose from all cultural and familial ties. Everything in her life depends on the reciprocation of loyalty by her shallow husband, Lieutenant Pinkerton, and that is not wholeheartedly returned, even at first.
Pinkerton and Butterfly sing of their happiness.

Pinkerton is such a cad that Shawn Mathey drew initial boos at the curtain call, but that was for the character the tenor portrayed, not his performance. Mathey managed the difficult task making Pinkerton mostly unattractive, his jingoism underlined by the score's quotation of "The Star-Spangled Banner" early in the first act. His nonchalant attitude toward his impending marriage earns a warning from the U.S. consul, Sharpless, played with apt looks of disapproval by Roberto de Candia.

Yet Pinkerton must also seem genuinely swept away once the exotic folderol of a Japanese wedding is concluded, and the friends and relatives have departed. It helps that his machismo has been excited by the stormy appearance of one of Cio-Cio-San's uncles, the Bonze (the other uncle, dramatically extraneous and often dropped, as here, is a comical lush). Pinkerton draws his sword on this ranting monster, and when the lovers are finally alone, their full, moonlit rapture as newlyweds sweeps the first act to its conclusion.

Both Mathey and Maria Luigia Borsi, in her third engagement with Cincinnati Opera, made the most of the love duet. Furthermore, Borsi fully embedded herself in the role throughout. In ther first act, she had the right sort of kittenish innocence; before our eyes and ears, she grew into a young woman fully committed to her decisive life course.  And in the second act, more than three years after that ecstatic night, she was obviously a careworn Cio-Cio-San, keeping her lonely commitment under considerable duress.

Though Borsi's voice "whitened" and lost some warmth up high, it was always intelligently used, accurate and fully expressive of the character's passion and steadfastness. As with Mathey, she was sensitive to the role's dynamic variety, leading up to the verge of being occasionally covered by the orchestra.

De Candia, an Italian baritone with that type's characteristic warm timbre, put across the essential humanity of Sharpless well, handled the consul's "I-told-you-so" moments without seeming pompous, and was (to put it bluntly) possessed of a little extra girth. That made his initial complaint about the rigors of the steep ascent to Butterfly's home both realistic and appealing.

Mezzo-soprano Kelly O'Connor took on vivid personality as the servant Suzuki in the second act, firmly supportive of Cio-Cio-San at every step — vocally so especially in the Flower Duet. Steven
Flower Duet: Maria Luigia Borsi, Kelley O'Connor
Cole had the physical bearing of the officious marriage broker Goro and just the right kind of piping, comic tenor. And you couldn't have asked for a more monstrously imposing Bonze than Reginald Smith Jr., on whom the company's crucially busy makeup department lavished an appearance surely inspired by representations of the grotesque in Japanese art.

Two minor but important roles were well filled. Cio-Cio-San's most persistent suitor during Pinkerton's prolonged absence, Prince Yamadori, was given genuine dignity by Joseph Lattanzi, despite Butterfly's mockery. And, as the tragedy deepens, Adria Caffaro's Kate Pinkerton was statuesque and sympathetic (if helpless).

The staging of the last scene seemed awkward. It drew attention away from the doomed marriage's offspring (a boy called "Sorrow' in the surtitles, "Trouble" in the program book). Though the character requires a silent juvenile given the difficult job of not really knowing what is going on but still showing affection to his mother, the boy is vital as an indicator of the Pinkerton-Butterfly union's tragic legacy.

Some of that was put aside at the very end, with the spotlight on the principals' embrace as Butterfly dies, a reminder of many other opera conclusions but not entirely appropriate for this one. As Ernest Newman comments caustically, Pinkerton "never strikes us as abundantly blessed with either brains or tact." Are we to believe that the remorse he professes to feel at the end overcomes such grave deficiencies?

Everthing else about the direction was visually and dramatically engaging, true to the opera's atmosphere and meaningfully resonant with its music. The gestures with fans and parasols as the wedding party gathers in the first act complemented the handsome setting.

On the individual scale, Borsi's movements during "Un bel di," the opera's contribution to any greatest-hits aria list, were eloquent and beautifully synchronized with Butterfly's detailed vision of Pinkerton's hoped-for return.

A glorious "Un bel di" can be said to justify the most stately and deliberate progress toward Butterfly's final crushing despair — and this performance had both. The Italian soprano must love it in Cincinnati: She acknowledged Thursday's standing ovation by kissing her palm, kneeling to touch her hand to the stage, and then, standing up, brought it back to place over her heart. The mutual affection was well merited.