Warm, raw, and honest
By Kelly Dean Hansen, Ph.D.
There is no way to completely avoid the cultural insensitivities in “Madama Butterfly” without fundamentally altering the concept of Giacomo Puccini’s beloved 1904 score. The composer certainly elevated his source material and did his best to show respect to both Japanese and American culture, but at the time, stereotypes and misrepresentations were inevitable.
It was about time for Central City Opera to revive “Butterfly.” The opera’s last appearance in the jewel box theater was in 2010, utilizing concepts and staging from a 2005 production. Since then, Puccini’s other repertoire staples— “La Bohème” and “Tosca”—have been presented. The opera (this year’s most “standard” work) opened the 2019 festival season to a full house on Saturday night, July 6, and will run in repertory through August 4.
Even since 2010, norms about cultural appropriation and sensitivity have been sharpened, and CCO is cognizant of that in presenting the opera. Margaret Ozaki Graves served as a cultural consultant and worked closely with director Alison Moritz in preparing the 2019 production. Moritz does not shy away from the libretto’s problematic aspects—in fact, she embraces them, using them to illustrate her vision in an enlightened way.
For example, the title character’s unnecessary conversion to Christianity is depicted as having more consequence than is typically shown. While Lieutenant Pinkerton—her American bridegroom—shows little comprehension for the magnitude of this action and the ramifications for his bride, Moritz allows it to sink in. Butterfly’s mother is shown as reluctant to renounce her daughter with the rest of her family, continuing to embrace her tightly until another relative forces her away. At the beginning of the second act, Butterfly is shown holding a Bible in an exchange with her maid, Suzuki, that typically has little import, but by including that detail, Moritz draws more attention to Butterfly’s serious commitment.
The warmth is balanced by a certain rawness and honesty. Butterfly’s suicide is staged in a more graphic and disturbing way than is usually done, and thus it has more intensity and impact.
Like all productions in this opera house, the staging is intimate and immediate. The single set is visually arresting and placed far forward. The characters are almost palpable to the audience. The use of props is also sophisticated and perceptive. An American flag is tastefully and appropriately deployed, as are Butterfly’s few relics of her Japanese culture.
Of course, Moritz owes much to both her cast and the always excellent CCO orchestra. Soprano Raquel González makes her company debut as Cio-Cio-San, the titular Butterfly (usually referred to by the latter name except in the family denunciation scene). The role is notoriously demanding. After her initial entrance shortly before the midway point in Act I, Butterfly is rarely off the stage, and especially in the longer Act II, she must carry the action and most of the music.
González is both compelling and enchanting in her portrayal of the unlucky heroine. She sings with crystalline beauty in all the big moments, especially the extremely familiar aria “Un bel dì vedremo” early in Act II. As an actress, she is careful not to bury the character’s good humor and warm heart underneath the tragedy and false hope. Puccini wrote Butterfly as somebody with a quick wit and a charming sense of humor, and González portrays that wonderfully.
Beside González, mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen is an absolute revelation as Suzuki. Puccini did not provide many great moments for this voice type in his oeuvre, but Suzuki is a substantial and difficult role that many of the world’s great mezzo-sopranos (such as Christa Ludwig) were not above taking. Rosen exudes pathos throughout, desperately wanting to give hope to Butterfly, showing obvious and deep devotion to her. When, at the end of the opera, Suzuki is the first to find out that all is lost, that Pinkerton will not and cannot return, Rosen virtually weeps through her singing and it is an extremely effective moment.
Pinkerton is a problematic role for any tenor. He dominates the first act even more than Butterfly, but is absent for most of the second. Puccini provided him with glorious music to sing (much of it based on “The Star-Spangled Banner”), but he also wanted the audience to despise him. The trick for the tenor is to make him just likable enough so that the audience can comprehend Butterfly’s devotion. Cody Austin finds the right balance in his portrayal.
Austin has a powerful, penetrating voice that resonates forcefully through the small space. The aria “Dovunque al mondo” is the first big set piece of the opera, and Austin delivers it with aplomb. In the long love duet with González that ends Act I, he nearly convinces the audience that his intentions might be honorable. It has become a tradition to deliver a few good-natured boos to Pinkerton during the final curtain call, and while that did happen, it was clear that the audience greatly appreciated the nuance and commitment that Austin brought to the role.
Baritone Troy Cook, who has provided many memorable performances at CCO in past years, contributes another one as Sharpless, the U.S. consul in Nagasaki. While he has no aria, Sharpless is a big part of the opera’s substantial ensemble numbers, most notably the tragic trio with Suzuki and Pinkerton near the climax of the final scenes. Cook is magnificent in his interactions with all three of the other main cast members. Puccini did give Sharpless a distinctive associated melody in the orchestra, and whenever it is heard, Cook emerges with another consequential and excellent scene.
Of the supporting cast, the fine tenor Joseph Gaines—another Central City stalwart—deserves mention as the oily marriage broker Goro. The character is responsible for much of the exposition, and Gaines delivers it with gusto.
Returning conductor Adam Turner is phenomenal in the pit, as are the musicians. “Butterfly” contains a rare extended piece of purely orchestral writing from Puccini—the intermezzo at the middle of Act II (which was originally two acts that were later combined). Turner and the orchestra play it beautifully. The accompaniment of the singers—always a challenge in Puccini with his frequent instrumental doubling of vocal lines—is also superb.
As usual, the chorus (here, of Butterfly’s relatives) is mostly made up of CCO’s wonderful Bonfils-Stanton Apprentice Artists. Bass Brian Kontes makes the biggest impact as the angry Bonze who denounces Butterfly. Finally, mention must be made of the costumes designed by Dany Lyne and coordinated by Dana Tzvetkov. They are authentic and beautiful, especially those worn by González, surely a mark of having a cultural consultant for the production.
The Weekly Register-Call thanks the Central City Opera and freelance classical music writer Kelly Dean Hansen, Ph.D., for this excellent review.