Saturday, November 12, 2016

'Madama Butterfly' at Clowes: Indiana University brings a typically well-prepared and -executed opera production to Indianapolis

Cio-Cio-San and her entourage enter the home her fiance Pinkerton has acquired for her far above Nagasaki.
An interrupted rote gesture of the heroine's adopted faith, then sobbing.

That tiny moment, at the beginning of the second act in Indiana University's "Madama Butterfly," represents the keen attention to detail of the production that moved into Clowes Hall for a two-night stand Friday.

For three years, Cio-Cio-San, the title character, has waited — amid expressions of confidence masking growing despair — for the return of her husband, an American naval officer whose founding-father name, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, is the most solid thing about him. Having taken his marriage to the former geisha lightly, he has gone back to the USA and married the "real American wife" he had promised himself in the first act. His Japanese wife is left to wait and wonder, to heal from banishment by her people, resisting a rich suitor while holding on to an increasingly desperate hope.

Cio-Cio-San kneels before an iconic portrait representing her adopted religion and crosses herself, breaking off as she breaks down. It's a microcosm of Butterfly's tragedy: Having burned the bridges of her heritage, she has thrown all her prospects for happiness upon an alien culture represented by a man she hardly knows, who is casual and ignorant about hers.

It's just one of many touches of dramatic insight brought to the production by stage director Lesley Koenig. They tend to work to deepen the audience's insight into plot and character. And they always serve the music as well.  To get right to the part of "Madama Butterfly" everyone knows: "Un bel di," the abandoned wife's fantasy of Pinkerton's return to Nagasaki, which in her mind also means a return to the domestic bliss they once briefly shared, is staged imaginatively.

Rather than a plant-your-feet-and-sing soprano showcase, this production has Cio-Cio-San starting with hands-on reassurance toward her faithful servant, Suzuki, that the reunion will come. As she elaborates on her fantasy, the music becomes softer. So, this Cio-Cio-San moves upstage, singing to Suzuki's back, inviting her to visualize Pinkerton's return for herself. Then, for the aria's peroration, Butterfly moves forward toward Suzuki as the two women bond over the certainty of Madam Pinkerton (as she insists on being called).

As seen Friday at Clowes Hall, the role of Butterfly had consistent luster in Mathilda Edge's performance. As the heroine's fate darkens in the third act, the luster also shone from Edge's low register. She steadily represented the indomitable courage of one of Puccini's most beloved heroines. Cio-Cio-San's trust is inviolable, and Puccini and his librettists wanted it to be so much more than persistent naivete. The result is to make Butterfly the most courageous of Puccini's victimized women, in her own way outdoing even the avenging Tosca. And that's how she was played in this performance.

As for Pinkerton, Koenig is unsparing in bringing out his coarseness. The lieutenant's entrance includes an unidiomatic florid  bow that approaches mockery. Handed cups of sake by the officious Goro, the marriage broker, he and the American consul Sharpless toss the contents on the ground. Pinkerton immediately asks Sharpless if he'd like whiskey, then produces a bottle and one glass. Pinkerton drinks his right from the bottle.

The soaring vocal command that Trey Smagur brought to the role heightened the impression of an uncouth American motivated solely by adventure. Yet Smagur, a giant of a tenor in more than the vocal department, also betrayed Pinkerton's susceptibility to Cio-Cio-San's charms. The cultural clash represented by this liaison was expertly staged. The first-act love duet that includes some of the score's most glorious music had striking moments of emphasizing the couple's incompatibility. We weren't invited to take this in as another one of those glittering hug-and-bellow numbers so abundant in romantic opera.

Smagur was harder put to be credible in the last act, but then all Pinkertons are, I think. His remorse is sincere, and Puccini set it to some glorious music. But of necessity it has to be brief, and the first-act Pinkerton creates such an indelible impression that, by the finale, we can't help thinking: "Yeah, too little, too late, buddy." It's an acting challenge, and Smagur seemed comfortable with it only as the curtain started to descend, collapsing grief-stricken near his distracted toddler son as the orchestra thunders.

In a supporting role, Eric Smedsrud had to work against the physical discrepancy between him and Smagur to establish Sharpless as a moral exemplar. The story makes him ineffectual in the end, and this production also stacks the deck against him by giving the first-act Pinkerton a silent sailor companion to reinforce his jingoism subtly. Another disadvantage of his portrayal was an occasionally veiled tone that made him hard to hear. Liz Culpepper was this cast's stalwart, but aptly skeptical, Suzuki, and Bradley Bickhardt brightly conveyed the piercing, busy-body perseverance of Goro.

The IU Orchestra was reliably multifaceted in the pit, with the performance conducted by Arthur Fagen. Tempos were flexible and flawlessly matched to the stage action. The pace broadened when the action slowed for dramatic emphasis. It got lively for the kind of nagging effervescence Goro represented and for the blend of gossip, surprise and recrimination that makes up the chorus' duties, brightly carried out as trained by Walter Huff.

The look of the production underscored the drama. An arrangement of suspended structures over the main platform rose from miniature model houses, changing abstractly into lanterns. These lit up as hope rose in the Nagasaki household. Some of them move out of sight as the dream of domesticity collapses in the third act. 

Behind the semi-abstract playing area, frames supported huge sheets of fabric that resembled natural scenery at first, craggy  but colorful mountains rising above the city. At the start of the second act, Patrick Mero's lighting gave them a blank, glaring appearance, like wrinkled shrouds representing the impending death of Cio-Cio-San's hopes. As for the tragic denouement in the finale, the shapes became gray and icy, symbolizing the implacable hostility of a milieu that has stifled the heroine's viability to the vanishing point. They finally soften and shrink in reflected horror at her preordained answer to an unbearable reality.