While the composers and librettists who collaborated on many of the world's great operas often focused on important social issues, it is nevertheless rare for modern, fund-raising conscious companies to emphasize the critical aspects of these works. However, in Central City Opera's current production of Madama Butterfly, acclaimed soprano and now first-time director Catherine Malfitano not only brings the story's anti-imperialist aspects to the fore, but makes a number of other prescient choices that, along with some stellar talent, turn this production into one of the most significant and powerful in memory.
As the audience is still settling in its seats, the larger-than-life figure of Cio-Cio-San's father assumes a meditative posture on a platform in the middle of the stage in front of a large Japanese flag. When the lights are dimmed, the clacking of ancient sticks ominously build to a frenzy, culminating in the only honorable means of saving face when your country's defenses have crumbled, and you have become a vassal of the United States: hara-kiri.
Then, in case we have failed to grasp the political significance of the situation, we are greeted by an arrogant group of Americans who callously mock the culture that they have just forced to open their doors to "free trade" (sound familiar?). U.S. Navy Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton and his friends smoke and drink as they discuss his upcoming "contract marriage" with Cio-Cio-San, an agreement that she and her family take seriously, but that Pinkerton sees as a convenience during his tour of duty, until he is able to find "a real American wife."
|Gerard Powers as Pinkerton|
and Maria Kanyova as Cio-Cio-San
Photo: Mark Kiryluk
Looking every bit the handsome, self-confidant officer, with a lyrical tenor to match, Gerard Powers is a peerless Pinkerton, as he convincingly morphs his lust for his young bride into a romantic, if delusional, passion that he carries with him even as he returns to America and takes another wife.
Though Pinkerton makes a half-hearted attempt to take responsibility for his actions, his efforts are too little, too late—the tragic hero of this tale is Cio-Cio-San, whose heart remains true to her man and, strangely, to the ideals of an adopted country that she has never visited and one which has treated her and her culture with disrespect. Malfitano's choice of wrapping Cio-Cio-San in the American flag during her final, desperate act serves not only as a perfect bookend to the first scene, but reiterates the political commentary with which the story began.
|Maria Kanyova as Cio-Cio-San|
Photo: Mark Kiryluk
Girlish in her mannerisms and with a soaring soprano and insistent optimism, Maria Kanyova's Cio-Cio-San illuminates the opera from beginning to end. When her marital illusion is finally shattered, her sacrifice, like her father's, resonates with honor and tragedy.
Michael Corvino, with an expressive baritone as the empathetic go-between, Sharpless, and mezzo-soprano Mika Shigematsu's steadfast Suzuki, provide effective counterbalances to the story's relentlessly fatalistic dynamics.
|(L to R) Carly Johnson as Dolore,|
Maria Kanyova as Cio-Cio-San,
and Mika Shigematsu as Suzuki
Photo: Mark Kiryluk
Conductor John Baril leads a talented festival orchestra that delivers a warm, deliciously melodic rendition of Puccini's score.
Ignoring some opening night issues with the rice-paper walls, we find scenic and costume designer Dany Lyne's work, highlighted by David Martin Jacques lighting, both elegant and refined.
Malfitano's dramatic and bold staging bodes well for her second career as a director.
Central City Opera's exquisite production of Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly runs through July 30th, in repertory with Samuel Barber's Vanessa and Benjamin Britten's Paul Bunyan. 303-292-6700.