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‘Butterfly’ soars at Glimmerglass

Operatoonity.com review: Madame Butterflypresented by Glimmerglass Festival
Live performance: Tuesday, July 29, 2014
The Alice Busch Opera Theater, Cooperstown, NY
5.0 stars

five stars

The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Exceedingly beautiful, tender, and elegiac, well executed in every aspect. The new production of Madame Butterfly at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown is an elegant, extraordinary show that delivers on all the weighty expectations placed on a beloved Puccini work.

It featured an evocative and versatile set and special effects including a shower of pale pink rose petals …

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

. . . and, later,  a billowing curtain of blood.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San and Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San and Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

It was a consummate theatrical production under the directorial aegis of the Festival’s Artistic and General Director Francesca Zambello, offering a sweeping saga of the powerful tensions between traditional Eastern and imperialistic Western values and culture as distilled through the single act of abandonment of a sympathetic heroine by a blundering American naval officer that drove many audience members to tears as early as the first act and storming to their feet a standing ovation by curtain call.

Amidst hours of artistry, stunning music, and many spectacular voices, it takes some kind of  special performer portraying Butterfly to soar higher than all others and all the other elements, elevating a production to a transformative operatic experience. As Cio-Cio-San, Korean soprano Yunah Lee sang a Butterfly for the ages, worthy of elegy. Lee conveyed power, beauty, and grace in every note, in every gesture, in every facial expression–a living, breathing symbol of that lovely butterfly whose wings are pinned down by Westerners seeking to preserve and enjoy them by killing them.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San with members of the ensemble in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San with members of the ensemble in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Everything Lee sang was perfection, from the famous Act I love duet with Pinkerton played impressively by American tenor Dinyar Vanya beginning with Bimba, Bimba, non piangere…

Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton and Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton and Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

…to the opera’s most famous aria Un bel dì, delivered flawlessly. Though the audience knows through Suzuki’s reactions that Pinkerton is not coming back to live with her, somehow Lee has made us believe through her powerful rendition that there’s a glimmer of chance of a happy reunion–even if we’ve seen the show before, numerous times.

Kristen Choi as Suzuki and Yunah Lee as Cio-CIo-San in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Kristen Choi as Suzuki and Yunah Lee as Cio-CIo-San in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

As Suzuki, American mezzo and Young Artists Kristen Choi was first-rate, turning in a nuanced and polished performance beyond her years, totally believable as Butterfly’s loyal maid, who is, if not older, considerably more worldly wise.

And the list of impressive performances continues. As Sharpless, Ukrainian tenor Aleksey Bogdanov sang the role with uncommon depth and sensitivity.  In addition to substantial artistry, Bogdanov has enormous stage presence and intelligence. Each of his warnings to Pinkerton, “Didn’t I tell you to be careful?” rings more urgent than the last because this Sharpless understands the consequences of Pinkerton’s actions even though Pinkerton himself remains clueless until the final scene of the show.

Kristen Choi as Suzuki and Aleksey Bogdanov as Sharpless in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Kristen Choi as Suzuki and Aleksey Bogdanov as Sharpless in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Tenor Dinyar Vanya was ideally cast as Pinkerton. He has a clear, spinto quality to his voice that one expects of a leading man in a Puccini opera. His infatuation with Butterfly was so believable rendered and his love duet with her to end the first act so beautifully sung, it brought this reviewer to tears.

Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Dinyar Vania as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Though not a singing role, special mention must go to little Louis McKinny, as Sorrow, Butterfly and Pinkerton’s three-year-old son. Somehow, this adorable child understood how critical his role is to the success of the production. He executed his stage directions perfectly, comforting his stricken mother, even remembering to innocently play with the toy boat as he marched offstage, just as he was instructed to do.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San and Louis McKinny as Sorrow in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San and Louis McKinny as Sorrow in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

The show was conducted by the Festival’s new music director Joseph Calaneri. During the smaller more intimate moments of the show, he conducted his capable musicians as if they were gloved on his hand. But in the initial numbers of the first act, it seemed like both Vania and Bogdanov had to compete with the orchestra to be heard and both have huge voices.

Those who have seen ‘Butterfly’ before might be surprised by the directorial choices in this production. Scenes that have been traditionally set in Cio-Cio San’s village are set in the American Consulate instead. Personally, I found this to be an effective choice in driving home the themes central to the piece, including the intrusion of American military power and influence abroad without an adequate respect for and understanding of foreign peoples and cultures.

Set design was by Michael Yergen and lighting by Robert Wierzel.

Set design was by Michael Yergen and lighting by Robert Wierzel.

So yes, this production offers a different artistic approach, but a winning one, and the work of all involved from the sometimes ethereal-as-butterfly-wings scrims and fly pieces designed by Michael Yeargan to the period costumes by Anna Yavich to the lighting by Robert Wierzel all combined synergistically to splendid effect.

It is an original version and yet one that lifts up the music and conventions of Madame Butterfly painstakingly inserted by the composer and the original librettists that begs to be seen.  There are six more performances of Madame Butterfly at Glimmerglass Festival through August 23. Don’t miss it.

* * *

Every mainstage performance is preceded by a Show Talk beginning one hour before curtain. The Show Talk for Butterfly was given by Director Francesca Zambella and is a wonderful add-on that will enrich your Glimmerglass Festival experience.

 

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odd duck ‘Ariadne’ is oddly satisfying at Glimmerglass

Operatoonity.com reviewAriadne in Naxos presented by Glimmerglass Festival
Live performance: Monday, July 28, 2014
Alice Busch Opera Theater; Cooperstown, NY
4-stars

 

Ariadne in Naxos presented by Glimmerglass Festival, 2014 | photo by Jessica Kray

Ariadne in Naxos presented by Glimmerglass Festival, 2014 | photo by Jessica Kray

To put it plainly, Ariadne in Naxos is an odd show. It’s a mashup of German slapstick that is not nearly as funny to Americans as Germans think it is and obscure if not obsolete homage to Greco-Roman mythology. So, why not do something completely unexpected and set the show smack in the middle of the Great State of New York? On a farm. Did I mention in a barn…with live goats and chickens?

The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Strauss’ “Ariadne in Naxos.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Glimmerglass Festival’s new production of ‘Ariadne’ (music by Richard Strauss) employed an English adaptation of von Hofmannsthal’s original libretto by Kelly Rourke for most of the show–the second half “real” opera scenes were sung in German. Again, another interesting twist that worked.

The premise is silly. Two different classes of performers have been invited to this New York farmstead to perform both an opera and a burlesque. After arguing over which portion of the entertainment will go first, at the last-minute they are told that they have to combine both styles in one show, which comprises the second act.

Director Francesca Zambello made other signature choices that stamped this new production as hers besides the barnyard setting and English/German libretto: the diva played by Christine Goerke was riotously comic as the Prima Donna in the first act, mugging unabashedly for the audience:

Christine Goerke as Prima Donna in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Christine Goerke as Prima Donna in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Strauss’ “Ariadne in Naxos.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

The burlesque troupe was attired and comported themselves like a hip hop gang:

L to R: Gerard Michael D'Emilio as Truffaldino, Carlton Ford as Harlequin, Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta, Christine Goerke as Ariadne, Andrew Penning as Scaramuccio and Brian Ross Yeakley as Brighella in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

L to R: Gerard Michael D’Emilio as Truffaldino, Carlton Ford as Harlequin, Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta, Christine Goerke as Ariadne, Andrew Penning as Scaramuccio and Brian Ross Yeakley as Brighella in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Strauss’ “Ariadne in Naxos.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

The temperamental Composer sung by Catherine Martin was in trousers, but it was no trouser role. Nor did she play it “straight” since she winds up in a girl-on-girl relationship with Zerbinetta played by Rachele Gilmore.

Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta and Catherine Martin as Composer in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta and Catherine Martin as Composer in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Strauss’ “Ariadne in Naxos.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

It was also the most sexualized version of  ‘Ariadne’ I’ve ever seen, with the burlesque troupe doing more twerking than you’ll likely find in a Rihanna video and Zerbinetta strutting her stuff in skin-tight leggings held up by  a garter belt, while fanning herself with black ostrich feathers.

Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Strauss’ “Ariadne in Naxos.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

All distinctive choices that, strangely enough, all made this show succeed in a unique way.

The production values were to be savored. A  charming, original, and functional set by Troy Hourie, inspired costumes by Erik Teague, atmospheric lighting by Mark McCullough, fun and funny hair & makeup by Anne Ford-Coates, and comedic choreography by Eric Sean Fogel all combined seamlessly to carry out Zambello’s distinctive vision for the production.

Of course, what would classic opera be without voices of exceptional character? It would be nothing, which is why opera is so very challenging, perhaps the most challenging of all art forms to pull off.

The singers in ‘Ariadne’ were all extraordinary. Christine Goerke exhibited tremendous vocal power and control. Her comic timing as the Prima Donna was so glorious that I missed her Divine-Miss-M spark in the second act while singing the character Ariadne in the legit opera. Jen Houser, Beth Lytwynec, and Jacqueline Echols were a sheer delight as the vocal trio Naiad, Dryad, and Echo, showcasing some of Strauss’s most beautiful and soaring composition abilities in Act II.

L to R: Jeni Houser as Naiad, Beth Lytwynec as Dryad and Jacqueline Echols as Echo in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

L to R: Jeni Houser as Naiad, Beth Lytwynec as Dryad and Jacqueline Echols as Echo in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Strauss’ “Ariadne in Naxos.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Despite their twerking or perhaps because of it, the Back-Street-Boys-Meets-Sweeney-Todd comedy troupe of Gerard Michael D’Emilio as Truffaldino, Carlton Ford as Harlequin, Andrew Penning as Scaramuccio, and Brian Ross Yeakley as Brighella were sheerly delightful and outrageously costumed. All happened to be talented singers and actors and captured focus every time they appeared on stage.

Clockwise from top: Brian Ross Yeakley as Brighella, Christine Goerke as Ariadne, Gerard Michael D'Emilio as Truffaldino, Andrew Penning as Scaramuccio and Carlton Ford as Harlequin in The Glimmerglass Festival's 2014 production of Strauss' "Ariadne in Naxos." Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

Clockwise from top: Brian Ross Yeakley as Brighella, Christine Goerke as Ariadne, Gerard Michael D’Emilio as Truffaldino, Andrew Penning as Scaramuccio and Carlton Ford as Harlequin in The Glimmerglass Festival’s 2014 production of Strauss’ “Ariadne in Naxos.” Photo: Karli Cadel/The Glimmerglass Festival.

But this show really belonged to Zerbinetta. And it is supposed to the way it is written, despite its being titled Ariadne in Naxos. It is Zerbinetta who has the biggest transformation amidst an 18-minute aria in Act II. Yes, an 18-minute aria, which Rachele Gilmore sung as if she was born to do it. I was stunned to read other critics’ reviews of this show that lacked significant mention of Ms. Gilmore because she makes this show at Glimmerglass. Yes, she is very shapely and attractive and works every single feminine wile God has endowed her with, which, by the way, does not diminish her talent, not one iota. She also has tremendous operatic chops and deserves highest praise for her performance. So, why such stingy reviews for this performer, compadres?

Conductor Kathleen Kelly has a graceful, fluid conducting form on the podium. While ‘Ariadne’ did not constitute the most ideal balance between orchestra and performers that I’ve encountered at Glimmerglass, the singers were overall capably supported. I did notice a few times that singers were struggling to be heard. Some such as Catherine Martin even lost notes, and the conductor needs to be mindful not to overpower the performers and leave them “stranded” during difficult passages.

Several break-out performances and super-solid production values make this an ‘Ariadne’ worth seeing. And I can almost assuredly guarantee, you’ve never seen an Ariadne like this one. Ariadne in Naxos continues through August 23.

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