Central City Opera's Madama Butterfly is beautifully sung, if a little over-directed. First performed in 1904, Puccini's opera tells the story of an American officer, B.F. Pinkerton, who is stationed in Japan and enters into an exploitative union with a teenage geisha. Such fake marriages, which the groom could leave at any time, were commonplace between U.S. officers and Japanese women at the end of the nineteenth century. Pinkerton knows from the beginning that he will eventually return home and find an American wife, but Cio Cio San -- Madama Butterfly -- believes entirely in his love and their enduring union. Once Pinkerton's left, she gives birth to his child and spends three lonely, penurious years waiting for his return. Her longing and passion are crystallized in one of the loveliest and most famous arias in the world of opera, "Un Bel Di," sung here to heart-melting effect by Maria Kanyova.
This Butterfly is directed by famed soprano Catherine Malfitano, who has herself sung the role of Cio Cio San on stages around the world. Her casting is impeccable, and the orchestra, under the direction of John Baril, sounds terrific. Kanyova has a voice that's both powerful and beautifully expressive. She's also an intelligent actress, whose Cio Cio San grows from a tinkling, love-struck little girl to a passionate and strong-willed woman -- and one who eventually comes dangerously close to madness. Gerard Powers has a fine tenor. He manages to make Pinkerton intermittently likable without attempting to mask the character's essential weakness and self-absorption. Mika Shigematsu, with her caring, self-effacing manner and smoothly melodious mezzo-soprano, is wonderful as Butterfly's maid, Suzuki. Chad Freeburg's marriage broker, Goro, gives strong, enigmatic support. And Michael Corvino, as the American consul, Sharpless, whose warnings that Cio Cio San is taking the marriage seriously go unregarded by Pinkerton, deploys a baritone so rich and kindly you keep wishing Butterfly had married him.
Malfitano directs with feeling and insight, but some of her innovations work better than others. There's a reference in the opera to the fact that Butterfly's father killed himself. In this version, a ghostly actor sits cross-legged on stage as the audience enters the opera house. He continues to sit, unmoving, for long, long minutes, before re-enacting the paternal suicide. This tableau actually works -- though I suspect the audience applauded it less because they were moved than because they were impressed by the performer's ability to play statue. Later, the same white-painted actor stalked silently across the stage like the ghost of Hamlet's father; he also intruded on Butterfly's suicide scene. The first of these reappearances was inadvertently funny, the second distracting.
At the beginning, there's an awful lot of play with bamboo and paper screens; there are also tableaux involving Cio Cio San's ancestors. These innovations clutter the performance: On the small Central City Opera House stage, simplicity works best. In the second act, a large American flag makes an appearance, again to mixed effect. The flag, along with a statue of Buddha and a prominently placed Bible, underlines the fact that Cio Cio San has turned her back on her own family and tradition. America has become her fantasy, her comfort and her refuge. But it is also the country that betrayed her. In part, the flag works well as a telling reminder of the incomprehension between cultures. I was moved when Butterfly gently touched the red, white and blue folds. But eventually the symbolism came to seem heavy-handed. At one point, Butterfly and Suzuki unfurled the flag between them, and some members of the audience began applauding as if they were at a football game. And -- even more unfortunately -- the flag was used to physically obscure Butterfly's suicide.
But other aspects of the opera were beautifully handled, particularly Cio Cio San's relationship with her child, Dolore, played with touching gravity and stillness by Anna Sienko on the day I saw the opera. It's in response to this child that Butterfly grows up, and Kanyova's interactions with Sienko are tender and graceful. In short, if Malfitano's direction is sometimes obtrusive, it also brings life and breath to this much-loved and -performed chestnut.
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