By Giacomo Puccini
Joseph Mechavich, conductor
Kristine McIntyre, director
Review by Annette Skaggs
Entire contents copyright © 2016 Annette Skaggs. All rights reserved.
Talise Trevigne in Madame Butterfly. Photo by Bill Brymer.
There is something magical and mystical about Puccini’s much loved Madame Butterfly, in that it can fill an opera house with wonder. And Kentucky Opera’s latest production did just that I am happy to say.
Based upon the play by David Belasco, Madame Butterfly encompasses some of the greatest properties of Opera: a scintillating story, eye-popping costumes, appealing scenery, and hauntingly beautiful music.
The story, set in the hills of Nagasaki, Japan, tells the tale of B. F. Pinkerton (Harold Meers), a young, brash Lieutenant of the American Navy and his marriage to the young and innocent Cio-Cio-San (Talise Trevigne). In the eyes of the Lieutenant this marriage is purely for egotistical and selfish desire, as he shares his view of having “one in every harbor” with the United States Consul Sharpless (Morgan Smith). But, for Cio-Cio-San, this marriage is for love, loyalty and devotion. As you may have figured out, this marriage does not have a storybook ending.
The staging for Butterfly is in the true Japanese style: minimalist and stunning, with a simple platform that serves as the house floor adorned with a scant amount of furniture, and panels that drop from the rafters to simulate the moving walls commonly found in such homes. The panels used depicted nature commonly associated with Japan: nesting birds and Cherry Blossoms. But the true beauty of the simple set design came from lighting designer Connie Yun’s eye for using just the right color to accentuate the events taking place on stage: from the beautifully lit starry night of the wedding day to the tragic end. Just as Ms. Yun’s lighting was affectual, Marie Anne Chiment’s costume design was stunning and true. Crisp, clean whites for Pinkerton and the married couple in the bedroom, and while the kimonos worn by Cio-Cio-San’s family and servants were dark and unornamented, her fellow Geishas were colorful and elegant, accentuated with a paper parasol. Cio-Cio-San’s wedding gown was resplendent in colored and golden threads and beads, depicting flowers and dragons on a field of white with red satin on the inside.
From the opening bars, expertly played by our talented Louisville Orchestra under the baton of the affable Joey Mechavich, one knows the events that are about to unfold before us. We have heard these themes before: love of one’s country, love and lust of another, deceit, anger, loss, and hopelessness.
From marriage broker Goro’s (Ryan Connelly) opening comment in E soffitto e pareti, to Butterfly’s last words in Con onor muore, each singer and musician have worked in tandem to bring auditory pleasure throughout the performance.
Let’s begin with Suzuki, admirably played by Studio Artist Clara Nieman. As I’ve considered the role of Suzuki just as much a principle role as the others, Ms. Nieman was a great mixture of servant, mother-figure, and friend, with a maturing mezzo timbre. The aforementioned Ryan Connelly’s Goro was played just as the little weasel that the character is. Perhaps one of the best themes ever written for a character’s entrance is probably for The Bonze (Butterfly’s Uncle), played by Gustav Andreassen. I have truly enjoyed listening to Mr. Andreassen’s vocal bass range get better and better with every production. I will have to say that I was a little disappointed with the vocalization of Ashly Newmann’s Kate. She seemed to approach the character with timidity. Perhaps that was a choice, but I never saw the character as a timid creature. The same might be said for Conor McDonald’s Prince Yamadori. While I think his voice is quite nice I always saw the role calling for a respectful, yet powerful man, but I didn’t get that from Mr. McDonald’s performance. But to be fair, these are young artists learning and growing as performers. The whole of the chorus was lovely, save for some auditory problems while singing offstage.
Harold Meers embodies Pinkerton so well, from his youthful and handsome look, confident swagger, and delightful tenor that sits well for the character – it all works very, very well. His aria, Dovunque al mondo, is sly and contemptable, just as it should be. As for the role of Sharpless, I could listen to Morgan Smith all day long. With a diplomatic air and a rich, velvety baritone, he upheld the title of Consul and caretaker in a fatherly way. Despite not having what one would consider to be a true aria, he expresses all of his phrases with strength and assurance.
Young and Beautiful. Naïve and True. These things have been attributed to the character of Butterfly and I am happy to say that Talise Trevigne’s interpretation was on point. Armed with a sumptuous soprano, her Butterfly was beguiling from start to finish. You knew when she was happy, sad, scared and/or angry. It was Butterfly’s world and Ms. Trevigne knew how to hold your attention. In her opening duet with Mr. Meers, the lovely Bimba, Bimba, non piangere, you could hear the hope in her voice. While singing Un bel dì, perhaps one of the most famous arias in the whole of soprano repertoire, you felt as if you were beside her as she talked about her missing husband’s arrival. But it was her closing aria, Con onor muore, that truly brought that talent home.
While I enjoyed director Kristine McIntyre’s choice to perform Madame Butterfly in 2 Acts, I didn’t get the full emotional and horrific effect of the last scene as I’ve had from other performances. Perhaps it was a personal choice or a collaborative one, but, one of the things I’ve looked forward to over the years of enjoying Butterfly is how the last scene is portrayed. This one didn’t seem very creative. But, the opposite can certainly be said of some of the other inspired staging strewn throughout the performance, most notably a wide awake nocturnal “daydream” of when her family is made whole again.
My most sincere welcome to the new General Director, Ian Derrer. Having had the privilege to work with the last three directors, I look forward to see what your vision for the Kentucky Opera’s 65th Season and beyond brings. So far, I’d say you are having a rather fantastic start.
September 23 & 25, 2016
W.L. Lyons Brown Theatre
315 West Broadway
Louisville, KY 40202
Annette Skaggs is heavily involved as an Arts Advocate here in Louisville. She is a freelance professional opera singer who has performed throughout Europe and in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boulder, Little Rock, Peoria, Chicago, New York and of course Louisville. Aside from her singing career, she has been a production assistant for Kentucky Opera, New York City Opera, and Northwestern University. Her knowledge and expertise have developed over the course of 25+ years’ experience in the classical arts.