Pinkerton (tenor Adam Diegel) and Butterfly (soprano Maria Kanyova) share a tender moment on their wedding night.
October 3, 2015
Does shifting the perspective of an operatic warhorse work? Sometimes. It may cause some head-scratching, but there is a strong case to be made for the Francesca Zambello staging of Madama Butterfly as seen at the Tobin Center on October 1, produced by Opera San Antonio.
Updating or re-imagining well-known operas can be a hit-or-miss exercise, but Ms. Zambello's 1998 concept, first staged by Houston Grand Opera, is innovative while remaining faithful to the purpose and spirit of Puccini's beloved classic. It was remounted in 2005 and presented most recently in 2014 for the Glimmerglass Festival Opera, where Ms. Zambello is artistic director. This is the version mounted here, with Ms. Zambello's staging expertly recreated by her longtime assistant director, Garnett Bruce.
For those unfamiliar with the story, it deals with an American naval officer who marries a lovely teen-aged former geisha under Japanese rules, which means the marriage is not recognized in America. She renounces her ancestral religion “for love,” which means she is shunned by her people. He sets her up in a house, but is soon shipped back home. He promises to return “when the robins nest.” She gives birth to a son he never knows about and forlornly waits for three years; when he finally comes back, his new American wife is with him. When the Japanese girl realizes what has happened, she commits ritual seppuku (suicide).
The usual setting is inside or just outside of the house. In this version, most of the first act takes place at the American consulate, as does the first part of the combined second and third acts. Ms. Zambello has said that she used the original David Belasco play, the source for the opera’s libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, as her inspiration. Belasco had included a scene at the consulate; Zambello used that setting to establish a quasi-Western perspective.
Thus, the chorus includes American women in long Victorian dresses and feather-trimmedhats in addition to the family of the bride, Cio-Cio-San (soprano Maria Kanyova). The American women even sing a traditional Japanese song, thanks to a distribution of what appears to be sheet music. Along with them, the office staff and naval personnel, there are also several Japanese women with young children in tow. Are they trying to locate missing husbands and fathers?
The consulate's backdrop is a massive scrim printed with the Pledge of Allegiance in both languages. The appearance of Butterfly's uncle, the Bonze, during the marriage ceremony is always dramatic. Here, it is doubly frightening as the scrim is drawn up to reveal stentorian bass-baritone Matthew Arnold's enraged condemnation of Butterfly for renouncing her faith. Behind him is a giant, ferocious Buddha.
The newlyweds' house is suggested with slatted scrim panels and little else. Here, tall, handsome tenor Adam Diegel manages to make Pinkerton less of a cad than the boastful rat we met at the consulate, who dreamed of someday having an American wife. He feels real passion for the girl, but there is also a hint of love – at least for the moment. At the opera's end, when he realizes how much pain his insensitivity has caused, his remorse comes across as genuine. His voice is sturdy and well-focused with a clear, ringing top and smoothness through the registers.
Satin-voiced mezzo-soprano Kristen Choi is an ideal Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San's maid and companion. She is believably steadfast and protective even though she doubts that Pinkerton will, indeed, return.
Baritone Luis Ledesma as U.S. Consul Sharpless brings a warm, rich sound and sympathetic presence to one who fears that Pinkerton will take full advantage of his young wife and never look back. His fears proven, he conveys genuine concern as he mutters words to the effect of “I told you so.”
Tenor Steven Cole is deliciously malicious as oily Goro, the marriage broker. He is even crueler in the scene when, back at the consulate, he is trying to convince Cio-Cio-San to wed wealthy Prince Yamadori (also Mr. Arnold). When she directs Suzuki to bring her little boy to her, a shocked and angry Goro hurls false accusations at them and is promptly pummeled by both women.
The child, Trouble, appears more often than usual in this production – a real bonus given that tow-headed Jacob Aiden Kania is a cherubic little scene-stealer who dances and cavorts with the women, always hits his mark (even if it's somebody's enveloping arms) and seems born for the stage.
Another innovation involves combining the last two acts using entre'acte music as a bridge. Butterfly, Suzuki and Trouble have heard that Pinkerton's ship has come at last and they are spending the night watching the harbor. During the silhouetted upstage vigil, there is a downstage flashback of Pinkerton and an American woman to whom he proposes on bended knee.
She is Kate Pinkerton (San Antonio mezzo-soprano Orit Eylon), who arrives at the house with her husband and Sharpless, and is first seen by Suzuki. They try to convince Suzuki to persuade Cio-Cio-San to give up the boy. Pinkerton sings a wrenching song of remorse, then bolts just before Cio-Cio-San spots Kate and realizes what has happened.
The concluding scene brings a rather bizarre staging departure: Cio-Cio-San sings her heartbreaking “Goodbye” aria to Trouble, sends him away and does the deed with her father's sacred dagger. A stage-wide scarlet curtain falls and Pinkerton, screaming her name, rushes in and holds her. She is barely alive, just enough to see little Trouble run in and pounce on his father's back. Aargh.
The excellent cast is rounded out by San Marcos baritone Ron Ulen as the Imperial Commissioner and San Antonio baritone Chiawei Lee as the Registrar.
Under the intuitive baton of music director Sebastian Lang-Lessing, the San Antonio Symphony offered unfailingly sensitive, beautifully balanced accompaniment.
Kudos to Michael Yeargan for his handsome scenery, which was streamlined from the Houston Grand Opera's original stage to fit Glimmerglass's smaller one, and Anita Yavich's enticing costumes (created for the Houston production but now owned by San Diego Opera). The impressive lighting design, also originally created for Houston, is by Alan Burrett.
It's a Madama Butterfly painted with remarkably different strokes, but one to be savored and pondered.
The performance repeats tonight at 7:30 at the Tobin Center's HEB Performance Hall. Call 210-223-8624.
Opera San Antonio: Madama Butterfly
The Bonze (Matthew Arnold, rear) condemns Butterfly (Maria Kanyova, center) and provokes the fury of Pinkerton (Adam Diegel, right).
Photos: Karen Almond
Butterfly waits for Pinkerton while Suzuki and Trouble sleep.
Ms. Kanyova's Butterfly is gracefully drawn, using convincing body language and shy gestures without resorting to the mincing walk and tittering behind a fan that we've seen too many times. Later, she reveals the strength that got her through those lonely years of trying to act and look like an American, which she does immediately after she is denounced by her family and friends. At the end, she dresses herself and her son in kimonos insead of Western clothing, reflecting her return to the faith of her ancestors. Her instrument is attractive, flexible and well-nuanced, especially in the familiar “Un Bel Di” aria (“One fine day he will return”), although she was nearly overpowered by the orchestra when she sang from upstage.
Suzuki (Kristen Choi), Trouble (Jacob Aiden Kania) and
Butterfly (Maria Kanyova) dance with joy upon sighting Pinkerton’s ship in Nagasaki Harbor.