Honesty compels me to admit I have never been a great admirer of “Madama Butterfly”. On the one hand, I have always regarded Pinkerton, the sailor who seduces and abandons the title character, as the prototypical Ugly American. Arrogant, self-centered, and chauvinistic, he's a sort of seagoing Rush Limbaugh. On the other, the Geisha Cio-Cio-San (a.k.a. Madama Butterfly) displays, as written, a degree of naiveté which, despite her youth (she’s supposed to be fifteen when she marries Pinkerton), borders on the delusional. As a result, the tragedy has always struck me as a bit forced.
Still, even I get a bit choked up in the opera’s final pages. From the scene in which the abandoned Butterfly prepares to take her own life after a tearful farewell to the son she has conceived by Pinkerton (and which poverty now obliges her to give up to Pinkerton and his American wife) to the final moment when Pinkerton, unable to deny what he has done, collapses in a heap of grief and guilt over Cio-Cio-San’s body, it’s pathos all the way, folks. This is Puccini, after all, and for me, at least, the emotional pull of his music is what raises “Butterfly” above the level of sordid melodrama.
And, of course, the moral issues it raises about power and principle are as valid now as they were over a century ago, both on the personal and national levels.
First-rate singing and acting by Union Avenue’s cast go a long way towards mitigating what I see as the opera’s weaknesses. Soprano Ann Wazelle’s Butterfly has just a bit more maturity and backbone than one usually sees in the role, which gives her character a bit more depth and Butterfly’s suicide an interesting element of defiance. She seemed to have a bit of difficulty belting out some top notes on opening night (although her high pianissimos were lovely), but was otherwise in excellent voice. I was not surprised to learn that she has substantial theatrical credentials as well as musical ones.
The role of Pinkerton is a familiar one for tenor Mathew Edwardsen, and he plays it with assurance and conviction. His journey from smug (and slightly racist) arrogance to guilt and remorse is entirely believable, despite the fact that Giuseppe Giacosa’s libretto has most of it happening offstage. And his voice is clear and seamless throughout its range.
Baritone Robert Garner is a warm Sharpless, whose warnings about Pinkerton’s immorality fall on deaf ears, and alto Debra Hillibrand is a sympathetic Suzuki, Butterfly’s wise and long-suffering maid and, eventually, her only real friend. Tenor Marc Schapman brings the role of the ethically flexible marriage broker Goro to credible comic life and bass David Dillard has a small but potent cameo as The Bonze, who excoriates Butterfly for converting to Christianity.
Even the smallest named roles, in fact, were well sung and acted effectively. That’s a sure sign of quality, in my experience.
Scott Schoonover conducted the orchestra with great assurance, and their playing was generally excellent, a few opening night flubs in the winds not withstanding. There was very fine and precise singing from the chorus as well.
Director Jon Truitt creates compelling stage pictures and has, thankfully, not given in to the all too common temptation among opera directors these days to impose an idiosyncratic concept on the piece. He plays it straight and allows Puccini to do the rest. His staging of the famous “humming chorus” that accompanies Butterfly’s poignant nocturnal vigil is particularly effective. As Butterfly sits “like patience on a monument”, the townspeople slowly pass below her with lanterns*. It touchingly underscores her loneliness and the pain of her ostracism.
Teresa Doggett’s costumes are strikingly beautiful, as is Patrick Huber’s set with its sliding paper screens and Japanese watercolor-style backdrop. His lighting sometimes left characters’ faces in shadow at inopportune moments, but I think that might be as much the fault of UAO’s performance space as anything else. It is, after all, a church sanctuary that has only been partly retrofitted for theatre.
Even if, like me, you find parts of “Madama Butterfly” hard to swallow, I think you’ll enjoy this production. Performances continue through July 21st at the Union Avenue Christian Church at Union and Enright in the Central West End. The opera is sung in Italian with projected English text clearly visible throughout the house. For more information: unionavenueopera.org.
*”Twelfth Night”, II-iv