Florentine’s Butterfly is Uneven
Nothing new in this interpretation, but most of the soloists were quite strong.
Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini is a warhorse. According to the opera statisticians at operabase.com, Butterfly is the third-most commonly performed Puccini opera (after La bohème and Tosca), the fourth-most commonly performed Italian opera (after La traviata by Verdi, La bohème, and Tosca), and the sixth-most performed opera in any language (after La traviata, Carmen by Bizet, La bohème, Tosca, and Die Zauberflöte by Mozart). In short, Madama Butterfly gets performed a lot.
The difficulty, then, with judging the quality of performance in a popular cultural favorite is perspective. Is there a standard by which all performances are judged? That seems unfair, and yet one holds onto memories of extraordinary singers, sets, costumes, direction, and lighting from past productions. Fortunately, seated three seats to my left was a very young girl—six or seven, perhaps—who surely was seeing Madama Butterfly for the very first time. Maybe it was even her first opera. I then had to consider how many people were at the opera or this performance of Madama Butterfly as blank slates. This innocent space was a much healthier way to view a chestnut. Was Florentine Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly an earth-shattering artistic achievement? No, but it was for the uninitiated a darn good effort.
Cio-Cio-San, a fifteen-year-old geisha, carries a fundamental naiveté about her betrothal to and later abandonment from American naval officer Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. Ostracized by her community, impoverished by her abandonment, and suicidal from misplaced duty, the story of Cio-Cio-San, set to Puccini’s luscious score, is obviously compelling fare.
Soprano Alyson Cambridge’s Cio-Cio-San was good. Cambridge had a persuasive dramatic stage presence that conveyed a subtly stylized interpretation of a young Japanese girl in a situation way out of her inexperienced grasp. Cambridge’s vocal production was just slightly less gripping than her acting. She sang with good intonation but with a wide vibrato that tended to isolate single notes rather than spin phrases, and she saved her juice for single climactic notes rather than build to the apex with well-paced crescendi. Cio-Cio-San’s signature aria, “Un bel di,” was lovely for its dramatic sensibility, but Cambridge could have benefited from more nuanced dynamic vocal control to accompany her splendid acting range.
Performing from the orchestra floor in Uihlein Hall puts all parties at a distinct disadvantage. The acoustics are terrible, so almost everyone on the stage is sonically neutered, and consonants disappear into a nebulous wash, robbing the audience of a considerable amount of detail. The farther back into the stage the singers went, the more difficult their projection became. Director William Florescu should know this as well as anyone and ought to have accommodated for the acoustical deficiency, even at the expense of drama.
Eric Barry’s Pinkerton was suitably dastardly. The character is despicable, and Barry’s manufacture of callous indifference was sufficient enough to earn him an appropriate booing at the bows. Barry has an easily produced voice with a variety of colors. While he smoked, paced, and condescended, his singing propelled his role.
Also impressive was Mark Walters as Sharpless. He had full command of his rich baritone voice, and his portrayal as a man with at least some shred of decency helped to solidify one’s disdain for Pinkerton. Walters was tenderly empathetic with Cio-Cio-San and frustrated with and embarrassed for Pinkerton.
Although he appears briefly, bass Jeffrey Beruan was outstanding as the Bonze as he dismissed Cio-Cio-San from her community for rejecting her ancestral religion. His voice was thunderous and terrifying as he admonished the poor girl for her choices.
In spite of being visible on two monitors and in the center of the orchestra pit, Maestro Francesco Lecce-Chong seemed invisible to the Florentine Opera Chorus. Arrhythmic entrances and sloppy ensemble marred the chorus’s efforts. The Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, on the other hand, played with vigor and tight ensemble. Lecce-Chong is a real talent, and it was eye-opening to see him master the demands of pacing and balancing an opera.
The set, borrowed from Boston Lyric Opera and designed by John Conklin, was a mysterious array of graceful sliding screens and odd, suspended Ikea-like constructions. Walls and screens transformed with seeming purposelessness, and the two Pier 1 folding chairs in the second act were anachronistic curiosities. The integration of chairs into a Japanese home to make the Americans comfortable was certainly understandable, but the design choice was surprisingly low-budget. During the flower petal scene, stunning large red flowers floated down into view and then, almost as quickly as they arrived, disappeared well before the end of the scene. If there was to be a meaningful philosophical impact in the scenic design, it wasn’t apparent.
In spite of these criticisms, the overall effect of Florentine Opera’s Madama Butterfly was absorbing. For first-timers, the story was dramatic, and the singing was satisfying. For the experienced, this performance was akin to running into a friend you haven’t seen for a few years and asking, “What’s new?” To which the reply is, “Nothing much.”