Opera Review: ‘Madama Butterfly’ Packs Powerful Emotions Into an Intimate Story

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/6/2017 4:20:56 PM
Modified: 8/7/2017 3:42:58 PM

Last year, Opera North mounted a thrilling production of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, which was brought to impassioned life by director Russell Treyz, conductor Filippo Ciabatti, set designer David L. Arsenault, lighting director John Bartenstein and the other professionals who work behind the scenes to put flesh on the bones of operatic masterpieces.

Fortunately for Upper Valley audiences the same theatrical artists are behind Opera North’s current staging of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at Lebanon Opera House.

They bring out the shadings of a story as gossamer as a butterfly itself, an accomplishment magnified by the intensity of South Korean soprano Jinwon Park in the role of Cio-Cio San, Madame Butterfly.

Numerous operas are of epic scale, with epic casts. Think Verdi and Wagner. Madama Butterfly goes in a different direction. Its emotions are epic, but the scale is intimate. That intimacy, and the sense that Puccini is giving Butterfly’s story the full scope it deserves, makes it one of the most poignant of all works of performing art.

Cio-Cio San, all of 15 years old, falls in love with the callow American naval officer Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, who fancies that he would like to collect a geisha while he’s on a tour of duty in Japan. Cio-Cio San believes his professions of love and his promise to return.

Pinkerton marries Cio-Cio San, knowing full well that the marriage doesn’t have the force of law in the U.S., and sails away. When Pinkerton comes back three years later, it is with an American wife. Together they want to take custody of the son that Cio-Cio San bore Pinkerton. Cio-Cio San cannot conceive of life without Pinkerton or her son, and kills herself.

As they did with Tosca, Puccini and his brilliant librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica refashioned a theatrical potboiler, in this case the play Madame Butterfly, itself cobbled together from numerous sources, into something much greater.

Puccini must have seen in the play the elements that had made great successes of Tosca and La Bohème. Forbidden or doomed love, something common to most operas; an emphasis on naturalistic speech; and memorable heroines. He also capitalized on the late 19th- and early 20th-century European and American craze for Japonisme, a fascination with the arts and culture (and erotica) of what was then called the Orient.

Initially judged to be a failure after its first performances in 1904, Butterfly went through three more iterations before Puccini was satisfied.

Now, Butterfly is one of the most performed and beloved of all operas, which speaks to the profundity and universality of its tragedy: a young mother who must decide between her loyalty to her child, the culture into which she was born, and the culture into which she married.

The former emphasizes individual liberty and happiness, the latter the sacrifice of personal happiness to rigid familial and societal hierarchies.

The far-reaching genius of Puccini, Giacosa and Illica was their modern understanding of the nature of Pinkerton’s actions. Pinkerton gives himself license to woo and then abandon Cio-Cio San precisely because she is not Anglo-Saxon. She is the “other.”

Would Puccini have called himself a feminist, or a critic of colonialism? I don’t know. But the depth of his operas is such that they lend themselves to any number of interpretations, including those. Certainly his deepest sympathies and passions lie primarily with women, and their ongoing struggle between love and duty, freedom and constraint.

If you read the supertitles with some attention, you see that composer and librettists tie Pinkerton’s adolescent behavior quite directly to his American-ness.

Puccini wove into the score motifs from the Star-Spangled Banner, which do more than simply announce Pinkerton’s arrival, or Puccini’s interest in American themes. They announce the clash between a younger, often willfully ignorant, American culture, and an ancient culture that is both mesmerized and horrified by the apparent liberality of the younger.

The artistry comes when Puccini, Giacosa and Illica go beyond the cliches of Pinkerton the cardboard villain, and Cio-Cio San, the victim, to show their transformation after the three-year-interval between marriage and reunification.

Pinkerton is capable of remorse, and Cio-Cio San agonizes over which course is best for her son. That doesn’t lessen Pinkerton’s betrayal, or alter what Cio-Cio San believes must be her fate. But it deepens our empathy.

Soprano Jinwon Park commands our attention with her resonant performance as Cio-Cio San. Her voice is versatile and limber enough to encompass not only Butterfly’s vulnerability but also the strength of her resolve.

Park’s vocals also suggest the other side of sound: silence.

If that sounds paradoxical, perhaps it would be more accurate to say that she (and the director and conductor) know how to modulate her tone, from piercing anguish to softer expressions of love to almost complete, and heartbreaking, silence.

Naturally, audiences concentrate on what is being sung, but Park has the emotional depth to convey that what is not being sung, or said, can be as significant. She is also a first-rate actor, capable of both the breathless idealism of the 15-year-old and the more fatalistic woman who greets Pinkerton for the second time.

As Pinkerton, tenor Michael Brandenburg acquits himself persuasively as the cad, earning himself a few boos at the curtain call, but it is in his love arias at the beginning and end of the opera that his vocal talent shines.

In the role of Suzuki, Cio-Cio San’s closest companion, mezzo-soprano Augusta Caso stands out among the supporting cast for the crystalline lines of her singing and her ability to mime her devotion to Cio-Cio San.

Baritone SeungHueon Baek, with a deep, stalwart voice, has the right mix of gravitas and sympathy as the American consul Sharpless, the reluctant go-between for Pinkerton and Butterfly. The rest of the cast ably fills in the shadings of Puccini’s delicate score.

Arsenault’s set, a replica of a traditional Japanese home with sliding panels made from translucent paper and wooden frames, is a marvelously adaptable organism that is deftly used to reveal and conceal the lives of the characters. Director Treyz brings the same sensitivity and eye for detail to staging Butterfly that he did with Tosca. Conductor Ciabatti and the Opera North orchestra catch the fleeting nature of life that Puccini wrote into the score.

If I had to pick a scene that encapsulates the virtues of this production, and indeed the opera, it is the famous Humming Chorus at the end of the second act.

Madama Butterfly and her son, and Suzuki, sit vigil waiting for Pinkerton. Suzuki and Butterfly’s son collapse into sleep but Butterfly sits upright and watchful as night gives way to dawn.

The tender, soft humming of the chorus evince Butterfly’s hopes, but convey also their fragility. There’s a patient stillness and sorrow in the scene that stayed with me long after the opera had ended.

Opera North’s production of Madama Butterfly will be performed today at 5 p.m.; Friday, Aug. 11 at 7:30 p.m.; and Sunday, Aug. 13 at 5 p.m. For tickets and information go to operanorth.org or Lebanon Opera House at 603-448-0400.

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