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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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apparently it’s ‘Butterfly’ season

Israeli Opera's new production of 'Madame Butterfly'

Want to catch a Butterfly? It’s in season — everywhere around the world.

Who all mounted productions of Butterfly in 2011-12? Israeli Opera, Minnesota Opera, Nevada Opera, Seattle Opera, Intermountain Bozeman Opera, and English National Opera, just to name a few companies. (See specific production dates and casts below.)

Madame Butterfly, Madama Butterfly. No matter what you call it, the Puccini opera has been a perennial favorite in the U.S. and across the pond.

However, some opera lovers contend its popularity is greater than it has ever been.

There is some data to support this assertion. According to Backtrack founder David Karlin, there’s a slight increase in the number of performances worldwide of Butterfly per Bachtrack.com: 124 listings in 2011 versus 112 in 2010. (Here are all the listings for Butterfly on Bachtrack for the next five months.)

Karlin adds, “It’s been a top ten opera for as long as I can remember.”

The reasons for its popularity are obvious. Karlin credits “a fabulous score combined with an opportunity to go completely over the top on Asian or faux-Asian settings that must be irresistible to set and costume designers.”

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Nevada Opera's Butterfly

And let’s not forget an authentic storyline that is genuinely moving. At a time when world events, even the pace of life, is soul-crushing or mind-numbing, because of the soaring music and evocative story, pieces like Butterfly are capable of restoring our humanity.

“Un bel di vedremo” startles us out of our life-inducing stupor and demands that we pay attention not only to Puccini’s work but also to the things that truly matter in life.

Any other reasons why everyone seems to be presenting Butterfly?

While its subject matter directly concerns the United States–which makes it unusual for a European opera, the portrait it paints of America and by association Americans is hardly a flattering one.

If we are viewed as imperialistic bullies by those entering the opera house, Butterfly will hardly convince them otherwise by the end of Act III.

To its credit, however, U.S. citizens in 2012 are not only willing  to be seen as Ugly Americans but also accepting of the moniker.

If you’ll permit me, compare America’s self-acceptance and self-loathing to another G-7 nation, Japan, the setting for Butterfly, who in 2012 won’t even permit the sale of one of my friend’s books, THE PEARL DIVER by Jeff Talarigo, because it offers an unflinchingly honest but unflattering portrait of  the island nation though the book takes place more than 40 years ago, not the Japan of the postmodern age.

Clearly, some Americans are actually willing to look critically at themselves for several hours parsed into three acts, along with the rest of the world. That doesn’t mean Americans shouldn’t continue to do some intense soul-searching. U.S. women believed that we were a protected class in the United States, that we were accorded certain protections by virtue of our gender that are seemingly under attack. “The War on Women” it’s being called, as legislators–men and women (shockingly)–propose laws to erode our rights and human dignity. A piece like Madame Butterfly is a powerful reminder of  why women need and deserve protection in the first place.

But what about continuing Puccini’s popularity as a composer. What might account for that?

A recent NPR article reported that Puccini said his success came from putting “great sorrows in little souls.” Is there any cultural evidence the United States–the world–is intrigued by little souls?

I think so.

While we certainly go for our kingly/queenly/deity stories occasionally, currently America is having an affair with the little man and the regular guy. With Joe Sixpack and Joe the Plumber. With Everyman. Look how many reality shows have infiltrated public consciousness and cable TV in the States and perhaps around the world. The mundane, the everyday is now primo as well as primetime entertainment.

WNO's 'Butterfly in 2010-11

Not that Puccini is mundane–not in the least. But the fact that he writes about people who are neither glamorous nor glamorized dovetails with the contemporary reality show craze.

And why is it Madame Butterfly used more frequently than Madama Butterfly these days? It could be a subconscious or a conscious attempt to make opera sound more accessible, more everyman, less the art form of an elite class? That’s the best rationale I can conceive.

I love Butterfly. (You can read my review of WNO’s 2011 Butterfly here.) Madama or Madame — it matters not. If using Madame as opposed to Madama in the marketing collateral brings in more patrons, then I’m all for it.

Here then are some of those 2011-12 productions of Butterfly mentioned earlier in this piece:

Israeli Opera  | April 11 – 27, 2012, with mimes. April 19 simulcast. Director Mariusz Trelinkski, conducted by Luciano di Martino. Starring Ira Bertman/Wioletta Chodowicz, Zoran Todorovich/Sergey Semishkur, Vladimir Braun/    Noah Briger, Monika-Evelin Liiv/Ayala Zimbler, Yosef Aridan, Alexi Kanunikoff, and Noah Briger/Reich Oded.

Seattle Opera's 'Butterfly' | © Elise Bakketun

Minnesota Opera | April 14-22 – traditional concept, ‘nationally acclaimed production, called “magnificent” by Star Tribune and “a rare, beautiful ‘Butterfly'” by Pioneer Press’. Directed by E. Reed Fisher, conducted by Michael Christie, cast Kelly Kaduce (previously sang the title roles in Minnesota Opera’s Madame Butterfly under Colin Graham’s direction in 2004 and Rusalka in 2009) Soprano Yunah Lee (Turandot, and 108th performance of Butterfly’s title role). Tenors Arturo Chacón-Cruz (debut) and Brian Jagde (debut) alternate in the role of Pinkerton. The American Consul Sharpless is sung by baritones Levi Hernandez (debut) and Andrew Wilkowske (Silent Night). Mezzo-soprano Mika Shigematsu (The Barber of Seville) alternates the role of Suzuki with Minnesota Opera Resident Artist Victoria Vargas(Lucia di Lammermoor). In both casts, Angela Mortellaro is Kate Pinkerton, John Robert Lindsey is the marriage broker Goro, Gabriel Preisser is Butterfly’s Japanese suitor Yamadori and the Imperial Commissioner, Joseph Beutel is the Bonze and A. J. Glueckert is the Official Registrar.

Nevada Opera | May 4 & 6 – anime-style concept. Directed & conceived by Monica Harte, conductor not credited, starring Veronica Mitina [Opera Theater North – Mimì/La Bohème, Intimate Opera Chicago – Violetta/La Traviata], Patrick Miller [Lyric Opera of Chicago – Arturo/Lucia di Lammermoor], Chris Trakas [Metropolitan Opera – Harlekin/Ariade auf Naxos], Sarah Heltzel [Seattle Opera – Siegrune and Flosshilde/Der Ring des Nibelungen, and Edwin Vega Appearance [English National Opera – Molqi/John Adams’ Death of Klinghoffer].

Seattle Opera | May 5-22 – opening night was company’s first-ever simulcast.  Directed by Peter Kazaras, Artistic Director of Seattle Opera’s Young Artists Program, conducted by Julian Kovatchev (debut). Starring soprano Patricia Racette in Seattle Opera debut, alternates performances with Lithuanian soprano Ausrine Stundyte. Both casts feature Canadian baritone Brett Polegato as Sharpless, and 2011/12 Young Artist Sarah Larsen as Cio-Cio-San’s servant, Suzuki. Tenor Doug Jones (Goro), baritone and 2011/12 Young Artist David Krohn (Yamadori), and bass Michael Devlin (the Bonze).

Intermountain Opera Bozeman | May 16-20. Directed by Steven Daigle, conducted by Ari Pelto, Starring Cynthia Clayton (New York City Opera credits include the roles of both “Mimi” and “Musetta” in La Boheme, the Countess in Le nozze di Figaro, and the title role in Madama Butterfly), Brian Jagde (Minnesota Opera, 2012 Santa Fe debut in Arabella) as Pinkerton and Levi Hernandez as Sharpless (Houston Grand Opera debut as Sharpless next to Ana Maria Martinez and Joseph Calleja, SF Opera debut in Il Trittico), Layna Chianakas as Suzuki (Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana with Opera Santa Barbara), Tyler Oliphant (Bonze), David Cody (Goro), Margaret Kohler (Kate Pinkerton), and BJ Otey (Yamadori).

English National Opera | May 8-June 2. Anthony Minghella’s Olivier Award-winning production, once hailed by the Sunday Telegraph as ‘the most beautiful show of the year in operatic London.’ Directed by Sarah Tipple, conducted by Oleg Caetani. Starring Mary Plazas, Gwyn Hughes Jones, John Fanning, Pamela Helen Stephen, Michael Colvin, Mark Richardson, and Jonathan McGovern.

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