Opera redux Madame Butterfly
Santa Fe Opera opened its 54th season with a laudable new production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, the ever-popular tearjerker about the Japanese maiden who marries, and is abandoned by, an American lieutenant in turn-of-the-20th-century Nagasaki. Soprano Kelly Kaduce, as Cio-Cio-San (the “Madame Butterfly” of the title), stood at the head of the cast in every way. Her singing, never less than impressive, assumed mounting intensity as the evening unfurled. Still in the dawn of her career, she boasts a thoroughly realized, uncluttered technique, and her performance was infused with musical flow and emotive flexibility.
Brandon Jovanovich, as Lt. Pinkerton, possesses a firmly developed tenor voice, though its expressive range went largely untapped. He got the job done without worrying about idiomatic Italian style. Elizabeth DeShong made a firm impression as Suzuki, Butterfly’s no-nonsense maid, her well-cultivated mezzo-soprano voice searing through the thick orchestra.
James Westman was miscast as Sharpless, at least in this production. His voice, small and swallowed, was out of scale to the rest of the singers, and the unbridled orchestra often rendered him inaudible. He was directed to play the part as bumbling, even clownish. Perhaps this portrayal can be rethought as the production continues. While he’s at it, director Lee Blakeley, who has done so much right, might fine-tune Kaduce’s depiction of Cio-Cio-San in Act 2. Aspiring to American ways and dressing in American garb, her former self evaporates to an unlikely degree: Butterfly becomes Nellie Forbush.
The tenor Keith Jameson is a familiar presence in tenor character roles at the company, and his vivid portrayal of the smarmy marriage broker Goro displayed his usual high standards. Bass Harold Wilson was blustery as the Bonze, and mezzo-soprano Emily Lorini was elegant as Kate Pinkerton.
The beautiful set (by Jean-Marc Puissant) was cleverly crafted to provide scenic variety within the limited confines of the stage’s mechanical possibilities. Interior spaces were defined by a cube that was reconfigured by repositioning shojis, and the entire apparatus could move about the stage and rotate 360 degrees. Just because it could rotate doesn’t mean that it needed to spin as much as it did: part of the Act 1 love duet, for example, was upstaged by the slowly revolving house. Still, the views were lovely, enhanced by a flowering cherry tree outside and simple furnishings within, and the lighting (by Rick Fisher) heightened the ambient drama.
Costumes (designed by Brigitte Reiffenstuel) were uniformly attractive in this period production, with the kimonos’ humble earth tones reminding us that Butterfly’s family has fallen onto hard times — which is why she has married Pinkerton in the first place. All elements conspired to create the evening’s most stunning visual moment: Butterfly’s entrance in a procession of Japanese women with parasols passing before the setting sun as they arrive at the house.
Conductor Antony Walker followed the score without suggesting any unusual take on Puccini’s music and (from the perspective of my seat) often over-balancing the singers. Musical standards onstage were generally high. Everybody sang in tune — far from a given in the opera world — and the cast remained unfazed even in the face of the petulant weather, which at the opera’s conclusion escalated into a tempest. It was an exhilarating start to a promising season.