April 22 Syracuse Opera: Madama Butterfly

Photo: Doug Wonders

Photo: Doug Wonders

Syracuse Opera delivers a handsomely understated ‘Madama Butterfly’

Patricia Hibbert’s colorful, authentic looking costumes trump the production’s budget-minded set in the company’s 2011-2012 season closer

By David Rubin

A handful of operas depend for their success on the performance of one character.  Strauss’s Salome, Puccini’s Sour Angelica, and Verdi’s Otello all require singers in the title roles who carry an inordinately large burden.  If they are not up to the task, nothing else matters.  If they are, the performance will be a success.  Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is surely among this group.

Syracuse Opera was fortunate, therefore, in having Mihoko Kinoshita in the title role.  Kinoshita, a native of Japan now living in New York City, has sung this part over the last decade in opera houses from Tokyo to Vancouver, and from London to Sofia.  While she has a wide repertoire, Butterfly is clearly her specialty.

No Butterfly can meet Puccini’s requirement in the libretto that she be 15 years-old at the time she foolishly marries the caddish American Navy Lieutenant, B.F. Pinkerton.  Kinoshita isn’t, doesn’t look it, and, wisely, didn’t try.  She was dignified and reserved throughout, even a bit matronly.  She kept to a minimum the stock Japanese gestures adopted by many non-Japanese Butterflies.  Her acting was subtle, such as a quick embrace of her maid Suzuki once the decision to commit suicide was inevitable.  She stood immobile, and nobly, throughout the long orchestral prelude to Act 3, looking out to the harbor as she waited for Pinkerton’s arrival.

All the cast members seemed to take their cues from her understated style.  Credit for this should also go to stage director Dean Anthony, who enticed natural performances from everyone.  Baritone Cory McKern was an anguished and embarrassed American consul, Sharpless.  Sarah Heltzel was a Suzuki with a spine, wise to the drama being played out but powerless to stop it.  As Goro, the marriage broker, Jason Ferrante was appropriately oily and sinister as he flitted about the stage.

Patrick Miller had the easiest acting assignment as Pinkerton, a part that almost plays itself.  He looked great in his dress whites, was properly romantic in Act 1, and then thoroughly cowardly in Act 3 when he returns to claim his child.  In this version he arrived in time to cradle the dying Butterfly, who recognized him and stretched out her hand to him, giving Pinkerton a faint touch of humanity.

Even Butterfly’s child, Sorrow, played by Elena Colegrove, was more subdued than usual.

Vocally speaking, Kinoshita had the stamina for this long part.  Her voice was strongest in the upper register, weaker in the middle and low ranges.  She was occasionally covered by the orchestra, as were others in Act 1.  Her sound is somewhat monochromatic and slightly tremulous, but she was always in command and on pitch.  Her touchstone aria Un bel di was greeted warmly by the packed house, which sat rapt and totally engrossed in the performance.

Both McKern and Heltzel also sang well.  McKern is a baritone with a future.  This house (2,117 seats) is a bit large for his voice, but he has a distinctive sound and the ability to convey anger and resignation with his singing.  He and Heltzel were splendid as two-thirds of the trio early in Act 3 when they acknowledge the catastrophe that is about to overwhelm Butterfly.

Pinkerton, of course, is the third part of that trio.  Miller has an attractive middle voice, but what should be his thrilling top notes are often tentative and weak, and when he had to sing out in the best manner of an Italian tenor, he pulled back.  This kept his love duet with Butterfly from taking wing.  Miller should not force his voice to fill a house this large.

Neither Ferrante as Goro nor Marc Webster as The Bonze, Butterfly’s outraged uncle, had voices large enough to make the necessary impression.  This Bonze would not have frightened anyone.

Given Syracuse Opera’s tight budgetary circumstances, it was wise for them to invest in costumes, and not in a set.  The latter, designed by Penny Gilbert, was about as bare as can be: a small Japanese house with sliding panels at stage left; a little red bridge over an unseen stream at stage right; and, next to the little bridge, the outline of a wild black tree with no leaves.  This served as the backdrop for all three acts.

The costumes, however, made up for the lack of variation in the set.  Designed by Patricia Hibbert, they were far better than the generic costumes Syracuse Opera often rents.  They appeared highly authentic, from the consul’s waistcoat and Pinkerton’s Navy whites, to the apricot, lavender, and turquoise dresses worn by Butterfly’s family members.  Whenever the family was on stage, Hibbert gave the audience a riot of color, complete with matching parasols.

onductor Douglas Kinney Frost, who is also the company’s Director of Music, is getting the very best out of Symphony Syracuse.  The orchestra played with passion.  After a scrappy start in the strings, the ensemble settled down and delivered a satisfying performance.  Kinney Frost’s interpretation was on the slow side, enhancing and underscoring the grim proceedings.  There isn’t much major key, up-tempo, cheerful music in Butterfly to begin with, and Kinney Frost minimized what there was.  This contributed to the emotional punch of Butterfly’s suicide at the curtain.

This Butterfly was another large step in the company’s artistic renaissance under Kinney Frost.  Given his way with Puccini, next season’s first offering, Tosca, should be just as impressive.

Details Box:
What: Puccini’s Madama Butterfly
Who: Syracuse Opera
When: 2 p.m. Sunday, April 22, 2012
Where: Crouse-Hinds Theater, John H. Mulroy Civic Center, 411 Montgomery St., Syracuse.
Tickets: $18 to $165
Contact: Box office: (315) 47-OPERA or http://syracuseopera.com