During World War II, Madama Butterfly was the one opera to be struck from the American repertory because it showed the Japanese in a sympathetic light and Americans at their ugliest. Likewise, today, the opera is guaranteed to raise the hackles of the politically correct. Add to that the music, which is Puccini at his schlockiest, and it is no wonder that we secretly dreaded sitting through it again.
Therefore, it is a real tribute when we say that the Opera Company of North Carolina really pulled it off--frankly, on production alone. And this in the face of a disaster-filled week which started on Sunday, June 18, with the sudden death, of Paul Gabriel (Gabe), the production manager, for years a moving spirit in nearly every theatrical production in the area. Then on Wednesday, artistic disagreements with conductor Lorenzo Muti came to a boil, and he withdrew from the production.
Once again, OCNC's general director Robert Galbraith was able to use his far-flung connections to fill the gap. Into the breach on Thursday stepped Steven White, principal conductor of Opera Birmingham and Opera Roanoke. With aplomb and intimate knowledge of the opera, White helped knit the production back together.
Using the same kind of connections, Galbraith was able to assemble an excellent and well-balanced cast, headed by soprano Maryanne Telese in the title role. Apparently Telese has made a specialty of Butterfly, and it showed. Despite some annoying shrillness and pitch problems in her highest register, she brought to the role a wonderful ability to transform herself from simpering, naive child to tragic heroine in a couple of hours. Particularly noteworthy was her second-act performance, in which she must turn on a dime to create convincingly the frequent mood swings between euphoric hope and black despair. Unlike many Butterflies of the past, Talese also looked the part, one of those rare sopranos who produces an enormous voice from a tiny frame.
Galbraith has always been scrupulous about hiring a team with depth, down to the most minor character role. In this regard, Telese was well supported, especially by tenor Howard Bender as Goro, the marriage/real estate broker who choreographs this doomed "Japanese marriage." Bender adeptly sang and acted the nervous, obsequious opportunist that comes back in the second act hoping to set up a double dip with the deserted Butterfly and another playboy, this time a local.
The two outstanding voices of the evening were mezzo-soprano Mika Shigematsu as Butterfly's maid Suzuki and tenor John Fowler as Pinkerton. His is a thankless role; as the hero manqué, Pinkerton is too much of a lightweight to be a true villain or a sincere lover. Fowler did such a good job of singing and acting the self-serving sexist and racist cad that the audience was audibly reluctant to give him the ovation he deserved.
Shigematsu has a wonderfully resonant and rich voice which is not given much of a chance to show itself in this opera. She played the maid, confidante, skeptic and protector, switching among these roles with subtle tonal changes and body language. Local audiences should plug for her to come back in a more substantial role. We noted in her bio that she does Rossini. We hope someone bites.
A cameo, but critical, character in the plot of Madama Butterfly is that of Butterfly's uncle, the Bonze (Buddhist Priest), who, near the end of Act 1, publicly denounces her for her conversion to Christianity. Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen had the voice, the presence and the stature to stand on the stairs and condemn the apostate (or anyone else who crossed him). Recently out of graduate school in voice at Indiana University, Ketelsen's career is one to watch so that in a few years you can say you heard him when.
General directors who also take on a singing role are asking for trouble. Galbraith sang the role of Sharpless, the U.S. consul, and in Act 1 the tension and strain of the last week clearly showed. But by Act 2, when he must have realized that the enterprise was working and the production a success, his voice became free. His acting, especially his body language, which is a critical part of this role, was outstanding. A kindly old bear, Sharpless has seen disaster from the start but--like any minor diplomat--is powerless to do anything to prevent it and is left to pick up the pieces and wipe up the blood.
The good thing about Butterfly is that you need only a single set. The OCNC's consisted of a traditional Japanese home, with an enormous three-part Japanese screen as a backdrop, instead of the traditional view of Nagasaki harbor. It was purchased from Opera New Jersey and modified by John Michael Deegan. Such little touches as Pinkerton's golf bag and clubs leaning on a bronze Japanese lantern made the set a part of the dramatic clash of cultures. Created by Malabar Ltd., Toronto, and the Opera Theater of St. Louis, the costumes were stunning, as were the wigs and makeup by Martha Ruski. Adding to our enjoyment was the playbill, a model of clarity and information, including background and historical setting.
Of the opera companies in the area, OCNC spends lavishly to mount its productions. Galbraith took a gamble that local audiences would be willing to support grand opera, and he seems to have been correct. Not only were both performances of Butterfly sold out, but the usually silent standing tribute characteristic of Triangle audiences was transformed into a shouting match the likes of a hired claque at the Met.