Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly with a libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, was not well-received on its premiere in Milan's legendary La Scala in 1904 -- the reasons being far too numerous and open to debate to strangle our flow here -- but Puccini, a man director Marc Astafan (making his Florida Grand Opera debut) calls "the Great Manipulator," revised the troublesome areas and when the production returned three months later it became a huge success. Puccini's resume is untouchable, from Turandot, La bohème and Tosca, which was performed last season by the FGO with a command performance by Jouvanca Jean-Baptiste, being his most well-known.
The opera has endured as one of the world's most beloved for a number of reasons that go beyond the obvious cultural clash of its main protagonists, 15-year-old Cio-Cio-San and her arranged American husband Lt. B.F. Pinkerton. Madama Butterfly is at heart a simple tale with many tendrils. The FGO has opened their 74th season in grand fashion, with solid stage work and symbiotic performances from the singers that further strengthen an already solid work.
The scenery, designed by David P. Gordon for the Sarasota Opera is Cio's home and garden against the backdrop of Nagasaki's harbor with a somber palette, reminiscent of Hiroshi Inagaki's Samurai Trilogy's mise-en-scène. The house itself, meant to reflect the lightness of the classical Japanese home with its numerous sliding doors and open floor formats, is a behemoth. While initially bothersome in its size and imposing weight, it soon became apparent that in a deft, post-modernist style, the house developed virtually unchanged as a crucial set-piece for the story's arc.
The time-frame of this work is a three year span in which Pinkerton, performed by Uruguayan engineer-turned-tenor Martin Nusspaumer, enters a marriage agreement with broker Goro (performed by Daniel Bates in his FGO debut with the right balance of charm and arrogance blurring the lines of likability for his character's office) with a girl named Cio-Cio-San and the fallout of their relationship. An American Consul, Sharpless (Todd Thomas), is peripherally involved with the protagonists and serves as an unreliable moral compass throughout. The first act revolves around the marriage ceremony and Pinkerton's conversations with Sharpless, revealing his ambivalence towards the marriage regardless of his infatuation with the beautiful girl.
Keeping in mind the historical time frame of the work should alleviate whatever feelings you have towards the marriage of a 15-year-old girl and a grown man -- but pause and see it as allegory. Pinkerton conjures the famed agency of hired guns while Cio-Cio-San is true to her name, which means butterfly, and as such, soprano Kelly Kaduce embodies her in a likable manner, with childlike wonder over the foreigner in the pristine naval uniform. But keep the allegories at bay beyond this point, for there are many if your mind starts to wonder towards World War II.
Nusspaumer's understated vocals played well in defining and fleshing out his character -- for all the navy he might represent, Pinkerton is naïve and somewhat callous in his vanity; he's also awkward and disingenuous -- lackadaisical even when Cio's father's suicide sword is brought up in question.
Cio's conversion to Christianity is the dramatic push of the work; though Pinkerton confesses that her butterfly's beauty is what attracts him, he'll eventually harm her wings as the marriage is a stopover until he marries a proper American wife thanks in part to Japan's lax divorce laws. Her uncle, the Bonze, is a Buddhist monk performed by bass Jeffrey Beruan in his FGO debut. Briefly onstage, Beruan managed an effective blow to the story and audience who took it like a well-placed cross on the chin. "Alone and rejected but happy" after her bars her from social contact, Cio enters her home, the doors closed behind her for the shadow-play of her kimono's removal before congress with her husband, the home the lone witness of her happiness.
Mezzo-soprano Caitlin McKechney is excellent in the role of Suzuki, Cio's maid and confidante. Her character, an amalgam of Jiminy Cricket, Greek chorus and BFF was performed with moxie and oftentimes gave a humanistic, humorous tone to the narrative as it began to darken in mood. With her, Kaduce and Nusspaumer had a balanced range going that made the performance clean and enjoyable.
The second act, an exercise in resistance for the human spirit, shows the home with the doors removed, vulnerable. On opposite sides there are shrines, one Buddhist and the other Christian, adorned with an American flag and a photo of Pinkerton. Suzuki, who has continuously debated Cio's devotion to the sailor makes duty of the Buddhist one while Cio pines away at her cross. It is now known that Pinkerton left shortly after their marriage and that Cio, now 18 years old has his blond, 3-year-old son to raise alone. An offhand observation about Japanese Gods being "fat and lazy" while American ones "answer faster" sets the mood for the terrific 4-year-old actor who plays their son with poise and maturity. If that kid was terrified to be the focus of a sold-out audience, he didn't show it.
Hailey Clark, in the role of the new Mrs. Pinkerton, performed with the necessary stoicism of a woman in a strange land and even stranger pact. Kaduce did a complete turn from the aloof child to a distraught and weathered adult, wrecked by nerves and the realization that she has been more torn within than she had previously thought. Madama Butterfly is in the end, a story of devotion and trust based on faith. Be it religious, amoral, sexual or cultural, the characters' actions revolve around the strength of their convictions.
Suzuki, though a maid, rises to a higher status in relation to Cio because of her isolation and becomes a voice of reason; not one that is heard by the butterfly but one that helps guide her ultimate decision. Sharpless is caught in a crossfire, why should he be hated by toasting Pinkerton's two-timing plans when he's also shone compassion and understanding to Cio's plight? Oh that's right, he's a political figure. Pinkerton is driven by a set of rules that he's invented and believes must follow. Only the child and Kate are thrust into this mess without input.
Kaduce's powerful performance showed Cio strongest of all and is less morally flawed than the enlightened Christians she joined. To the westerners, hara-kiri might seem brutal but it is an honorable act, one she's doomed to follow her father's footsteps in. The child, draped in an American flag while Cio kills herself, is a final act of mercy, not for her benefit but for the father and new wife, so he is raised American believing that is what he wants and her strong faith in their unity is what drives her to do the "right thing."
This act, a sin by Christian standards, is a Japanese act of honor. Pinkerton has effectively collected her and pinned her wings -- the home, now empty and lit in a depressive blue, manages to look sad and every bit the box where Cio's wings are pinned in.
Conductor Ramón Tebar commandeered his orchestra with skill and a soft touch that complimented the almost liquid direction by Astafan. FGO General Director Susan T. Danis revealed in a Talk Backs session, that the seemingly brand new costumes were made in 1981 by Allen Charles Klein for them. The FGO has an ambitious schedule ahead, with Madama Butterfly set to run until December 6 , followed by Così fan tutte, The Pearl Fishers and The Consul.
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For an opening night performance that followed an "atypical" rehearsal process, according to information mentioned during the Talk Backs, the FGO has firmly planted its first foot into this season. For all the talk of Miami being a great city on the rise with its arts and literature scenes (Miami Book Fair International and Art Basel), it will never truly be a "great" city if it does not have "great" opera.
The FGO has great opera that is world class and affordable. The Ziff Ballet Opera House at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts is the perfect home for it, too. Do not sleep on this season -- the bar's been set pretty high, but these folks know how to keep raising it.