Saturday, April 20, 2019

A director's fresh mark and the shocking tragedy of Madama Butterfly made powerful at Opera San José


Twenty-something times seen or more, there’s still a limitless amount to say about Madama Butterfly, Puccini’s ever-popular opera that premiered in 1904. In a revival production from Opera San José that opened in 2014, director Brad Dalton allows it to speak with a good degree of freshness with conductor Joseph Marcheso shaping its music with billowing momentum from an orchestra expertly in line.

Maria Natale as Cio-Cio-San and Opera San José Chorus
The buzzing of mosquitos depicted by the opening strings around Cio-Cio-San’s (Butterfly’s) little hillside home in Nagasaki, the boom of the port’s cannon signalling the arrival of the USS Abraham Lincoln in the harbour and the delicate, breezy air that blows in the wordless “Humming Chorus" as Cio-Cio-San waits for her husband to climb the hill - not only in it’s capacity to wring out emotional energy, so much more is painted in music to be relished.

Layered over this, director Brad Dalton hints to us that Cio-Cio-San, is not alone in her abandonment and that many a young female may suffer the same tragedy she does when she falls for the U.S. Naval Lieutenant B.J. Pinkerton. Cio-Cio-San’s happiness turned to grief is all the more painful and disturbing because Dalton, with a methodically detailed eye, zooms in on Cio-Cio-San’s naivety and resolve as well as Pinkerton’s cultural clumsiness and blatant insensitivity.

When the curtain goes up, four naval officers give an American salute in front of the red and white stripes that appear to signify allegiance to country over the women they take as toys. One of them breaks off and joins his Japanese plaything but Pinkerton can’t help himself from making cheap advances on her, the morning he is to wed Cio-Cio-San. It’s a stinging start that complements the ambiguous mood Puccini writes for Cio-Cio-San’s entrance when she shares her joy, “I am the happiest girl in Japan!” to music that is dolefully coloured.

Maria Natale as Cio-Cio-San and
Renée Rapier as Suzuki
Despite the vividly drawn individual characters, Act 1 had its issues. In the title role soprano Maria Natale initially wasn’t the 15 year-old Cio-Cio-San I had hoped to meet. Much of the young geisha’s coyness was overplayed along with movements that looked awkwardly choreographed. Cio-Cio-San’s amorous pairing with Derek Taylor’s Pinkerton, the picture of a man's man, also appeared unconvincing. But 3 years later, when aged 18 as she waits in hope for Pinkerton’s return, Natale gave her everything you could wish for in an Act 2 and 3 of soaring beauty and diving grief. And the tears rolled on cue! Natale impressed immensely in Act 2’s “Un bel dì vedremo” ("One fine day we shall see") - another poignant Puccini moment with the tone of pathos in music sung with radiant hope - her vocal agility in full flight with emotional expression that welled with naturalness from within. And the more distant she appeared as hope was finally fading, the more you sensed that Natale was barrelling towards a kind of ‘mad scene’ that culminated in a riveting and horrifyingly tense final aria she plunged into with compelling power, “Tu? Tu? Piccolo iddio!” ("You? You? My little god!"), as Cio-Cio-San bids farewell to her young boy. 

Taylor’s smug and cocky depiction of Pinkerton had desired impact, his tenor’s burnished tone, resonance and projection delivered with overall attractiveness. Transitions into his upper register occasionally lacked smoothness but, from the centre down to the lower voice, the confidence and form were commanding (Dane Suarez opened the season and alternates in the role). Renée Rapier was particularly impressive in dark mezzo lushness as Cio-Cio-San’s loyal housemaid Suzuki and sharing her brief sense of optimism with Cio-Cio-San in a tender, sisterly and heavenly "Flower Duet". 

Both reasonable and resigned as the US Consul Sharpless, baritone Trevor Neal stood firmly anchored in voice with smouldering warmth of tone. Neal brought out Sharpless’ reading of the letter from Pinkerton in an Act 2 highlight with a robust show of compassion as Cio-Cio-San blindly believes she will be re-united in marital harmony. But even that had its limits as his pent-up frustration with Pinkerton leads him to lunge at and grab Cio-Cio-San in a last attempt to make her understand the truth.

Trevor Neal as Sharpless, Renée Rapier as Suzuki
and Maria Natale as Cio-Cio-San 

Supporting roles were generously filled with Mason Gates making a strong impression as the slimy marriage broker Goro, Philip Skinner a storming Satan-like figure as Cio-Cio-San’s uncle, the Bonze, and Ben Brady as the wealthy and patient Prince Yamadori. Katherine Sanford, as Pinkerton’s American wife Kate, exuded grace and warmth of voice and demeanour in the uncomfortable circumstance of one woman pledging to raise another’s child.

Set designer Kent Dorsey infuses the three-act singular fluidly realised early 20th century setting with deft economy and ambience as well as engaging effects that capture the seasons under Pamila Z. Gray’s well-balanced lighting. A gently raked shiny black central platform defines the dwelling area and leads to a spread of steps backed by a sliding black wall. Behind, a variety of effects are created that offer subtle and distinctive ways to demarcate time. Paper screens drop sparingly, three floor lanterns sit either side of the platform, and a few simple furnishings indicate the little alterations Cio-Cio-San makes as an American’s wife that include Act 2’s shrine to her absent husband and a Buddhist shrine in front of which Suzuki worships. Julie Engelbrecht’s costumes do colourful justice to the everyday and ceremonial robes of Japanese tradition and the tailored class of Western presence, together with handsome royal blue naval uniforms. 

And wearing the uniform of his father as  Dolore, young Ezra Kramer (Atom Young Maguire alternates) couldn’t hold back audience applause and tears in the final shocking moment Dalton constructs in which the young Dolore plays with his model ship centre of fore-stage as his mother takes her life behind him. What comes next will stain his innocence for life. And for those who might be tired of the opera’s popularity and frequency, it makes an eternally affecting and essential piece of dramatic theatre no end of freshness, it seems, can be given to. 


Madama Butterfly
Opera San José
California Theatre
Until 28th April, 2019

Production Photos: courtesy of Opera San José

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