Glimmerglass’s ‘Madame Butterfly’ finds harmony in the clashing of cultures
The two female leads dominate the singing in Francesca Zambello’s insightfully staged production
Staging Puccini’s beloved Madame Butterfly has its challenges. The storyline unfolds slowly, at times painfully so, and there’s precious little onstage action to sustain interest throughout the three-act drama. And while the colorful Japanese costumes offer some degree of relief to the eyes, the visuals in this opera pale in comparison to the grandiose pageantry of Turandot and the striking imagery of Tosca.
In the end, it’s Puccini’s lavish music — with its richly seasoned pentatonic-flavored harmonies — that tells the story of Butterfly.
Director Francesca Zambello offers a fix to the drama’s static action in this new Glimmerglass production. Somehow I knew she would. Zambello and her production team (Set Director Michael Yeargan and Lighting Director Robert Wierzel) build a steady stream of visual motifs that juxtapose two starkly different cultures. These are then drawn together, like leitmotifs in a Wagnerian music drama, into a unified whole. Add to the mix the vocal splendor of the two female roles, Cio-Cio-San (Yunah Lee) and Suzuki (Kristen Choi), and you have a musical collaboration that engages the listener’s eyes as well as ears.
This is a Butterfly that deserves to be both seen and heard.
The genesis of Puccini’s beloved opera began in London, where the composer had attended a staging of David Belasco’s play, Madame Butterfly. After the 1904 premiere at La Scala failed miserably, the composer reworked the opera and it has remained popular ever since. The present Glimmerglass production is based upon Puccini’s 1907 version, in which the composer had made several changes to the score.
The plot centers on a 15-year-old Geisha, Cio-Cio-San (Madame Butterfly). The term “Geisha” often raises eyebrows in Western culture, but the word — derived from Gei (art) and sha (doer) — properly connotes an “entertainer” well versed in art music, conversation and story-telling.
The girl falls prey to Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton, an American sailor whose ship had recently arrived at Nagasaki harbor. Once ashore, Pinkerton enlists the services of Goro, a local realtor and marriage broker, looking for a place to stay. That, and a good-looking woman to stay with. Goro suggests Cio-Cio-San.
The American Consulate, Sharpless, warns Pinkerton that the act of marriage in Japan should be more than a frivolous act intended for the pleasure of the moment. But go try and tell that to a sailor on leave at an exotic locale. Pinkerton weds Cio-Cio-San — who willingly abandons her culture, relatives and friends to become his wife. Pinkerton sails off soon afterwards, leaving her behind but promising to return “when the robin makes its nest.”
The naïve Cio-Cio-San, now with child, continues to wait patiently for her husband to sail back to port long after it’s apparent he has abandoned her. When Pinkerton finally does return to Nagasaki three years later, he brings along his “real” (i.e., American) wife. Ostracized from her community for marrying an outsider, the forlorn heroine commits hara-kiri. The curtain falls.
Costume Designer Anita Yavich’s handsome looking kimonos and oil-paper umbrellas fill much of the stage much of the time. But a good deal of the production’s visuals are more subliminal than obvious.
Before the opera begins we see two sets of hanging vertical panels, one representing a U.S. flag and the other representing traditional Japanese Shōji. These symbols of two very different ways of life stand uncomfortably alongside one-another, as if products of an uneasy truce.
As the music begins, with a fugal subject in the violins, the panels retreat to reveal the back wall of the American Consulate in Nagasaki, which displays the Pledge of Allegiance followed by a lengthy string of Kanji (Japanese writing system) characters. This juxtaposition of creeds, if that’s what these are, also looks ominous.
At the beginning of act three the symbolic coupling of cultures reaches its peak. It is now dawn, and two figures can be seen watching the sunrise at Nagasaki harbor. On our left stands Kate Pinkerton, the lieutenant’s “real” (American) wife, for whom the rising sun signals the dawn of a new life full of happiness. On the right stands Cio-Cio-San, for whom this same sunrise spells the death of hope. Since sunset the night before she has been staring fixedly at the harbor, waiting in vain for her robin to return to the nest.
Credit Robert Wierzel with some jaw-dropping sunrise and sunset effects.
Yunah Lee, as the tragic heroine Cio-Cio-San, was impressive from the moment she opened her mouth (singing the “Love Theme” to the accompaniment of the women’s chorus in act one) to the time her ceremonial dagger closes it some three hours later.
The Korean-born lyric soprano projected effortlessly, even when forced to sing softly from the back of the stage — such as when she nervously asks Pinkerton during their brief honeymoon to “love me gently.” Lee’s penetrating, colorful vocal timbre oozed warmth in her signature aria, Un bel dì vedremo, which she delivered with richly nuanced dynamics. And Lee poignantly tugged at the heartstrings when bidding farewell to her young son in her final aria, Tu, tu piccolo Iddio. I doubt there was a dry eye in the theater when she takes the child by his arms and says, “Look at your mother’s face, and remember…”
In the louder moments Lee revealed a fearless and commanding vocal presence whose confidence suggests a thorough level of comfort in this, the opera’s leading role. Although there was a moment or two when her high notes sounded a bit fatigued at the climax to the act one “Love Duet,” Lee’s booming octaves with Pinkerton at the duet’s conclusion gave me goosebumps.
With his good looks and firm build, Dinyar Vania as Lt. B.F. Pinkerton looked the part of the dashing American sailor looking for a good time.
Vania, making his Glimmerglass Festival debut in this production, is no stranger to the role, having sung Pinkerton with the Boston Lyric Opera and Lyric Opera of Kansas City. Here he crafts a believable and strangely sympathetic character who, though careless and selfish in his behavior, never appears willfully evil. Vania’s first act Dovunque al mondo, where he describes Japan as a virtual playground for a sailor’s amorous pursuits, came off not with cockiness but with innocence — like a boy looking to play ball at the park. He was entirely credible in his remorse during the third act Addio, fiorito asil, when he admits to Suzuki that he is too much of a coward to bid Cio-Cio-San farewell in person.
Though a fine actor, Vania was less persuasive in his singing Sunday afternoon. The quality of his voice was certainly pleasant enough, and his top notes were consistently solid and dependable. But the tenor’s legato was choppy and non-linear — as if he were focusing more on projecting the voice than connecting the notes within melodic phrases. That would certainly be understandable, considering the powerful delivery of his counterpart Lee during such moments as the splendid “Love Duet.” At curtain call there were audible hisses and boos from the crowd (directed at the villainous character, not the actor), to which Vania simply shrugged his shoulders apologetically.
It’s difficult to believe that Kristen Choi, who sings the role of Butterfly’s devoted maid and confidante, Suzuki, is a Glimmerglass Young Artist. The California-born mezzo-soprano sings like a seasoned veteran with a wealth of experience behind her.
As was the case with Lee, Choi’s voice stood out immediately when we first hear her at the beginning of act one — though you’ll have to wait until the beginning of act two to savor the full flavor of her expressive lyric mezzo and the manner in which she adds weight to important words when advising Cio-Cio-San of their precarious financial predicament. Choi’s duet with Lee later in the act, Scuoti quella fronda di ciliegio (“The Flower Song”), was a vocal and visual delight — sung as petals from cherry trees “rained” from the sky in celebration of the arrival of Pinkerton’s ship, the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln.
Choi is a convincing actor, as well — whether singing or reacting to others who sing. When she meets Kate Pinkerton her tears of grief in the trio Lo so che alle sue are genuine. At times I found myself wondering whether Suzuki is as much the tragic heroine in this story as Butterfly.
As Sharpless, the American Consulate to Nagasaki, Aleksey Bogdanov sang with a handsome baritone that though a bit tight in the upper register early on gradually gained strength and scope throughout the performance. His voice reached its peak in the third act when he chided Pinkerton bitterly for the lieutanant’s irresponsible behavior. As an actor, however, Bogdanov is rigid, especially during those moments where he is onstage but not singing. When Cio-Cio-San relates her dilemma over giving up the child, Bogdanov stands at attention, arms glued stiffly to his sides — like a mannequin in a display window.
Glimmerglass Young Artist Ian McEuen injected a much-needed dose of comedic relief as the obsequious marriage broker Goro, using his comedic flair and body movement to good effect as he slinked across the stage selling his services to the American lieutenant.
Thomas Richards as the Bonze all but breathed fire during his dramatic entrance at the wedding ceremony — the quintessential party pooper, to be sure. Backed by what has to be the meanest looking statue of Buddha I’ve yet to come across, Richards (also a Glimmerglass Young Artist) used his commanding bass-baritone to good effect denouncing his niece Butterfly for abandoning her ancestors and culture.
One has to marvel at the stage presence and timing of four-year-old Louis McKinny, as Butterfly’s son “Sorrow,” who ran to his mother’s arms at all the right moments. In real life, Master McKinny is the son of Ryan McKinny — who plays Billy Bigelow in the company’s current production of Carousel.
The Glimmerglass Opera Orchestra responded alertly to the quick changes of mood and tempo in Puccini’s revised score. Conductor and Music Director Joseph Colaneri, who knows this opera score inside and out, maintained good balance with the singers throughout the performance. Colaneri dared to take the opening Allegro at Puccini’s preferred tempo (quarter-note = 132), but was forced to retreat and relax the tempo when the winds experienced difficulties keeping up during the pernicious staccato passages.
The Glimmerglass Opera chorus, though relatively sparse in this opera, sounded quite lovely. I especially enjoyed the gentle pianissimo humming at the conclusion to Act Two as the sun calmly completed its descent.
There wasn’t an empty seat in sight at the Sunday matinée, and audience reaction at final curtain was overwhelming: an immediate standing ovation with prolonged shouts of approval. I expect that as the run continues the shouting will be louder yet.
What: Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, sung in Italian with projected English titles
Performance reviewed: July 13, 2014
Who: Glimmerglass Festival
Where: 7300 State Highway 80, Cooperstown, N.Y.
Time: About two hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission
Call: Glimmerglass Box office: (607) 547-2255
Ticket prices: $10 to $144 (discounts for students, educators and seniors)
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. July 24, 26, Aug. 3 (Young Artist Performance), 9, 15, 23; 1:30 p.m. July 21, 29, Aug. 3, 18