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Friday, 20 June 2008 19:00

Madame Butterfly

Written by Al Erickson

Opera Theatre of St. Louis

Through June 28, 2008
Reviewed by Al Erickson
I should state up front that I am not an "opera buff." I am not one of those who, when they hear the name Puccini, say things like, "Oh, Puccini. All he ever did was write some pretty melodies." I like those pretty melodies, especially when, as was the case last Thursday, those pretty melodies work in concert with a good story and high emotions.

Add imaginative staging on a simple, yet versatile, set, and you have the elements necessary to a cracking good evening of theatre.

I am also not a fan of translation for opera. In my opinion, vocal music, be it lieder or opera, should be performed in the original language since, in most cases, the music was composed for that language. The vowels "fit" with the music while the consonants punctuate it. Change languages and one changes the sound.

Opera Theatre performs in English, and I do appreciate that that is done to make the libretto intelligible to English speakers. However, while the translation by Margaret Stearns and Colin Graham is both intelligible and intelligent, and while both the principals and the chorus were strong, a lack of clear diction on the part of some of the vocalists still required the use of the super-titles provided on screens off to the sides of the stage. One might as well, in that case, have the joy of hearing the opera the way it was written.

Don't get me wrong. I thoroughly enjoyed the performance. Kelly Kaduce as Cio-cio-san beautifully captures the spirit of the role and is most moving, and David Pomeroy as Lieutenant Pinkerton humanizes his villain nicely; the two were as near perfect as I could have hoped for. Jamie Barton as Suzuki and Lester Lynch as Sharpless shone in their respective roles, though in both cases I found my eyes moving over to the super-titles. Alas, English is not a beautiful language, and there is a great temptation to concentrate on the musical vowels; I would have liked more attention paid to the consonants which frame those vowels.

The orchestra, under the baton of Timothy Long, were very good indeed, never overpowering the singers, yet never seeming to be holding back when sheer power was called for. The tempi feel just right. Perhaps it was just first-night jitters which left a couple of the singers seemingly waiting for their musical entrances rather than acting. Still, the music coming from the stage and that from the pit worked together to make for a memorable performance. The duet at the end of Act I had me choked up, and "Un bel di" was gorgeous.

That is what makes opera special among the various forms of theatre: the combination of the story, the action, the words and especially the music is able to draw emotional responses from an audience which is only rarely found in other theatrical forms. In this particular case I found myself openly weeping more than once.

Neil Patel's set works beautifully with E. Reed Fisher's staging. There was good variety in body placement, and I never felt, as I have felt at performances at the Met, that anyone was moving downstage purely for the purpose of an aria. Moving screens lend versatility to the set. The silhouettes shown on those screens at the ends of both Acts I and II - the wedding night and the death of Cho-cho-san --worked, in my opinion, better than actually seeing the action which they suggest.

All in all, I can heartily recommend Opera Theatre of St. Louis's production Madame Butterfly. It was the best three hours of theatre I have seen in a very long time. Madame Butterfy runs in rotating repertory with the season's other three operas through June 28th at the Loretto-Hilton center on the Webster University campus. For ticket information call 314-061-0644.

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