31 October 2015

PERFORMANCE REVIEW: Giacomo Puccini – MADAMA BUTTERFLY (T. Trevigne, M. Brandenburg, M. Sumuel, L. Ammann, I. McEuen; North Carolina Opera, 30 October 2015)

IN PERFORMANCE: Giacomo Puccini's MADAMA BUTTERFLY at North Carolina Opera, October/November 2015 [Illustration of Cio-Cio San's rejection by her relations by Leopoldo Metlicovitz (1868 - 1944), ©  by Casa Ricordi]GIACOMO PUCCINI (1858 – 1924): Madama ButterflyTalise Trevigne (Cio-Cio San), Michael Brandenburg (Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton), Michael Sumuel (Sharpless), Lindsay Ammann (Suzuki), Ian McEuen (Goro), Wei Wu (Lo zio Bonzo), Jesse Malgieri (il Principe Yamadori), Charles Hyland (Il Commissario Imperiale), Kate Farrar (Kate Pinkerton), Jacob Kato (Lo zio Yakusidé), Tom Keefe (L’Ufficiale del Registro), Annette Stowe (La madre di Cio-Cio San), Margaret Maytan (La zia), Austenne Grey (La cugina), Ella Fox (Dolore); North Carolina Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Timothy Myers, conductor [E. Loren Meeker, Director; Mark McCullough, Lighting Designs; Alice Bristow, Costume Designs; David P. Gordon, Set Designs; Sondra Nottingham, Wig and Make-up Designs; North Carolina Opera, Memorial Auditorium, Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Raleigh, North Carolina; Friday, 30 October 2015]

Writers are often told that the surest path to success is writing about situations and sensibilities that they know from their own experiences. In a pragmatic sense, perhaps the best advice for composers is that they will find greatest inspiration in contemplation of that which cannot be known, those realms of thought and feeling for which words alone are inadequate. There is no better argument in favor of the veracity of this counsel than the genesis of Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly. When in the summer of 1900 the composer first encountered David Belasco's dramatization of John Luther Long's 1898 story 'Madame Butterfly,' itself an adaptation of Pierre Loti's Madame Chrysanthème, on the London stage, his knowledge of English extended little beyond 'Hello.' The play's atmospheric setting and the demeanor of the long-suffering Butterfly herself engaged Puccini's emotions and creative instincts in ways that transcended language, however, and the transformation of the delicate heroine of Long's story and Belasco's play into the operatic Cio-Cio San began in earnest. Considering not only the straightforward evidence of his correspondence but also interpreting his music, it is no exaggeration to state that Puccini fell in love with the ill-fated ladies who populated his scores. Lingering criticism of Puccini's skill and originality as a composer notwithstanding, the uncanny emotional potency of his scores is derived in large part from the fact that audiences, too, fall in love with the proud Manon Lescaut, the idealistic Mimì, the despondent Suor Angelica, and the selfless Liù. Even among her sisters in the Puccini canon, Cio-Cio San is unique. Manon Lescaut dies in her beloved's arms, Mimì is sustained by the boundless love of her friends until disease will be put off no longer, Angelica expires in an ecstasy of absolution and reunion with her child, and Liù gives her life as the purest declaration of devotion. Her wings broken by the betrayal of a man for whom she rejected her own culture, Butterfly dies alone, reclaiming her identity by committing the sole act via which, in the social order into which she was born, the honor of a compromised woman might be restored. There are no sentences of exile imposed by indifferent judges, no ravages of disease, no longing for the company of a departed loved one, no secret more valuable than living: deserted by hope, happiness, and the illusions upon which they were founded, only Cio-Cio San's own hands possess the power to free her. Pinkerton's distant cries of 'Butterfly!'—perhaps the most heartrending instance in opera of too little, too late—serenade a soul already liberated from its purgatory. Psychologically, perhaps the final scene of Madama Butterfly resonates so intensely with many observers because Cio-Cio San's suicide controverts Western philosophies’ unremitting dedication to preserving life at any cost. Emotionally, though, the blade that pierces audiences’ hearts is wielded by Puccini’s music. Treating the score not as a nostalgic postcard from Nagasaki but as a blueprint for crafting upon the stage a cyclorama of humanity, North Carolina Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly sharpened that blade to an acute level of dramatic musicality.

Musically and scenically, Madama Butterfly is very difficult to get right. Though Puccini's intentions were undoubtedly wholly respectful of the ancient customs and traditions of Japan, the opera walks on the edge of the precipice overhanging uncomfortable stereotypes and misguided, ill-informed representations of a timeless culture. In reality, criticism of his sentimentalized use of Japanese folk tunes and 'The Star-Spangled Banner' ultimately possessing little validity, Puccini engaged in very little musical moralizing in Madama Butterfly. There is no doubt that his sympathy was with Cio-Cio San, but there is sufficient beauty in his music for Pinkerton to make the sailor as charming as he is caddish. Charm was an essential component of North Carolina Opera's production, which placed the drama in a Nagasaki of delightful but deceptive natural beauty. Natural imagery is of tremendous importance to the plot of Madama Butterfly, and David P. Gordon’s sets, effectively and sometimes stunningly illuminated by Mark McCullough’s lighting designs, impressively recreated Imperial Japan on the Memorial Auditorium stage. A production of Madama Butterfly need not take every word of Puccini’s and his librettists’, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, staging instructions literally, but the opera demands a greater degree of specificity of time and place than many of its companions in the standard repertory. Unfathomably, the notion of 'traditional' productions continues to be anathema to the decision-makers at many opera companies despite the manifold indications that audiences respond as readily to composers' original thoughts as to today's directors' rethinkings. E. Loren Meeker's direction of North Carolina Opera's Madama Butterfly focused attention precisely where it must be centered if the opera's drama is to realize its full potential to enthrall the senses, on the relationships among the principal characters. There are in a tale of collisions between Eastern and Western cultures so many possibilities for insensitivity, but Alice Bristow's costumes and Sondra Nottingham's wigs and make-up gave every individual upon the stage a clearly-defined rôle in a thoughtful manner that avoided sensationalized exaggeration of the societal chasm between Cio-Cio San and her relations and Pinkerton’s Americanism. Too many productions of Madama Butterfly are an act of jigai away from being The Mikado, but North Carolina Opera’s detailed, discerning production was traditional in the best sense: the audience was privy to a performance of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, not someone else’s.

Madama Butterfly is a musical chimera that assumes vastly different appearances according to the constituent parts of the score that conductors choose to emphasize. In this performance, North Carolina Opera’s Artistic and Music Director Timothy Myers facilitated a reading of Puccini's score in which the music's lyricism, tinges of verismo, and Twentieth-Century modishness were all given their due. Composed in 1903 and revised to the form known today after an unsuccessful première at Teatro alla Scala in 1904, Puccini’s score is both a continuation of the modes of expression that proved cogent in Manon Lescaut and La bohème and an expansion of the direction in which he traveled in Tosca. The modernity of the music is often overlooked, but Myers unveiled the almost-Stravinskian pungency of many of Madama Butterfly’s harmonies, heightening the significance of the opulently Italianate melodies. One of Voix des Arts' Best Artists of 2015, Myers is a conductor whose approach to music is dedicated in equal proportions to content and context. In exploring the latter, he reminded the casual listener that Madama Butterfly is a contemporary of Richard Strauss's Salome and Claude Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande. During his tenure in Raleigh, Myers has nurtured exponential increases in the confidence and capabilities of the North Carolina Opera Orchestra, and the musicians joined him in making of the notes on the pages before their eyes a vibrant world in sound. String playing was consistently well-balanced, especially in the gossamer writing in the love duet, and the brass and woodwind players alternated cacophony and caresses as the score required. The prevalence of poorly-executed performances should eradicate the misconception that Puccini's operas are not as demanding as the scores of many of his non-Italian contemporaries, but Myers and his orchestra gave the impression of effortlessness in their mastery of Madama Butterfly. Equally heartening has been the artistic growth of the NC Opera Chorus in recent seasons, and Chorus Master Scott MacLeod's fastidious training of the ensemble was apparent in the world-class choral singing in this performance. As Cio-Cio San's attendants and relations in Act One, the choristers sang with precision, and their traversal of the famous 'a bocca chiusa' humming chorus that bridges Acts Two and Three was bewitching, sopranos and tenors alike braving the top B♭s fearlessly. Whether singing from the stage, playing from the pit, or presiding from the podium, North Carolina Opera's personnel acquitted themselves with consummate professionalism and the passion for their collective craft that makes Raleigh one of America's foremost destinations for opera lovers.

This was an unusual Madama Butterfly in that there were no singers in supporting rôles who were not up to their tasks. Austenne Grey's Cugina, Annette Stowe's Madre, Margaret Maytan's Zia, Jacob Kato's Zio Yakusidé, and Tom Keefe's Ufficiale were all ably-sung, carefully-acted portraits. Baritone Charles Hyland conducted the wedding ceremony  handily, voicing the Commissario's 'È concesso al nominato Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton' authoritatively, and fellow baritone Jesse Malgieri created a Yamadori of vocal means equal to his wealth with a resonant voicing of 'Tra le cose più moleste è l'inutil sospirar.' Bass Wei Wu roared chillingly as Zio Bonzo, detonating 'Cio-Cio-San! Cio-Cio-San! Abbominazione!' with ferocious muscle and a voice of granitic eloquence. Special mention must be made of Ella Fox, who without singing a single note stole every heart in the theatre with her adorable portrayal of Cio-Cio San's and Pinkerton's child Dolore.

To suggest that Kate Pinkerton is a thankless rôle is an understatement. Audiences are understandably predisposed to vilifying the 'other woman,' but her music, though hardly redolent of empathetic motivations, is not devoid of kindness and sincere concern for the welfare of Pinkerton's child. Mezzo-soprano Kate Farrar was a prepossessing 'sposa americana' who sang her few lines admirably. Both her 'Glielo dirai?' and her 'E le darai consiglio d'affidarmi?' throbbed with reluctance and genuine interest in Dolore's well-being. One of the production's most touching details was the image of Kate hiding herself outside Butterfly's house, weeping for the the poor girl's sad fate and her own unwitting part in it.

It is perhaps when his music is poorly sung that audiences most appreciate what a crucial rôle Goro plays in Madama Butterfly. Inexplicably, the part often seems to be regarded as an opportunity for whining, wheezing, and indulging in embarrassing pseudo-Oriental babbling. By contrast, it is astonishing to note how significantly a good Goro can heighten the impact of a performance of the opera, and North Carolina Opera had in tenor Ian McEuen a singer who upheld the seldom-equaled standard of Piero de Palma. Having recently garnered notice in Nashville Opera's production of Turandot, McEuen came to Raleigh's Madama Butterfly with a battle-tested familiarity with Puccini's style of fast-paced, mock-Asian writing, and his portrayal of Goro was distinguished by a refusal to sacrifice musicality in pursuit of cheap humor and an attractive, well-integrated instrument that required no faking of notes at the range extremes. Propelling the start of Act One with the nervous energy of a salesman eager to please (and to have his commission), McEuen sang 'Vanno e vengono a prova, a norma che vi giova nello stesso locale' with clear, well-placed tone that fell all the more dulcetly upon the ears for being free of caricature. Goro's ramblings have considerably more words than actual content, and McEuen carried on with the glee of an orator who fancies the sound of his own voice. His statement of 'Una stella dai raggi d'oro' disclosed the presence of an imagination far more extensive than many Goros bother to suggest. Furthermore, McEuen's singing in Act Two, when in 'Il ricco Yamadori. Ella è povera in canna' Goro attempts to facilitate a match between the abandoned Cio-Cio San and the affluent Principe Yamadori, was too cordial to be solely commercial in nature. No, this Goro, lurking at the periphery and observing everything, was sensitive to his surroundings and to Butterly's silent suffering, and McEuen's resourceful, splendidly-sung performance displayed the prime quality of Puccini's writing for the character.

North Carolina Opera's Madama Butterfly had in contralto Lindsay Ammann a Suzuki not just capable of singing the rôle—a trait more precious than might be supposed—but also unusually adept at being not merely a companion but a genuine comfort and confidante for her Butterfly. She was the epitome of nervous energy in Act One, rattling through 'Sorride Vostro Onore? Il riso è frutto e fiore' with girlish elation. She voiced 'Ecco! Son giunte al sommo del pendio' beguilingly. Suzuki's prayer at the start of Act Two, 'E Izaghi ed Izanami, Sarundasico e Kami,' received from Ammann firm, focused tones, and there was compassion even in her stark 'Mai non s'è udito di straniero marito che sia tornato al nido,' reminding Cio-Cio San that foreign husbands who return to their distant wives are an unknown species. The contralto's 'Vespa! Rospo maledetto!' was Wagnerian in scope, her top Fs and G♭s flashing like lightning bolts. In Act Three, Ammann's declamation of 'Già il sole!' was a crestfallen acknowledgement that Suzuki's fears were well-founded, and she sang 'Come una mosca prigioniera l'ali batte il piccolo cuor!' heartbreakingly. Ammann projected notes in chest register of which a baritone would have been proud, and she portrayed an animated, poignantly sisterly Suzuki.

Bass-baritone Michael Sumuel was a Sharpless who was unafraid of chastising his friend Pinkerton and was visibly shaken by Butterfly's noble suffering. Dressed in a drab suit, he was the prototypical low-level American bureaucrat to the life. Entering in Act One with a brawny 'E suda e arrampica!' that coursed through the theatre excitingly, Sumuel sang excellently throughout the performance. There was true admiration in his 'Miss Butterfly...Bel nome, vista a meraviglia,' and his blandishments to the unheeding Pinkerton were all the more dire for being so handsomely sung. In his Act Two scene with Butterfly, this Sharpless was virtually crippled by the pain that his visit was inflicting on the proud woman. When quizzed by Cio-Cio San about when robins nest in America, his responses of 'Mi rincresce, ma ignoro' and 'Non ho studiato ornitologia' were infused with tenderness. Unnerved by the interruptions to his well-planned delivery of the news of Pinkerton's abandonment, Sumuel's Sharpless sang 'Ora a noi. Qui sedete, legger con me volete questa lettera?' ponderously, but his quiet pronouncement of 'Quanta pietà!' was the cry of a man who could bear no more. His 'Sovente a questa siepe veniste a riguardare lungi' was a profound moment, the significance of which many Sharplesses ignore. Sumuel was marvelous in Act Three, voicing 'Scegliemmo quest'ora mattutina per ritrovarti sola' and 'Io so che alle sue pene non ci sono conforti!' with rich tone. The kinship between Sharpless and Marcello in La bohème was especially apparent in Sumuel's deeply-felt performance. A thoughtful Marcello conveys that he loves Mimì almost as much as Rodolfo loves her, and Sumuel left no doubt that his Sharpless cared for Butterfly in a way that was far more enduring and pervasive than Pinkerton's infatuation. Sumuel made a character whose level-headedness can seem callous the emotional spine of the performance.

On the surface, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton is one of the most despicable characters in opera. As portrayed by young tenor Michael Brandenburg, he was particularly loathsome because he was also so captivating. Tall, handsome, and debonair in his Navy whites, he was a Pinkerton who surely set hearts in every port of call aflutter. Brandenburg launched Act One arrestingly with his boyish singing of 'E soffitto e pareti' and 'Gran perla di sensale!' In his first aria, the Allegro sostenuto con spirito 'Dovunque al mondo lo Yankee vagabondo,' he ascended to the top A and B♭ with fantastic ease, and he phrased 'Amore o grillo, dir non saprei' with true feeling, taking the three top B♭s in stride. His 'Vieni, amor mio!' radiated romance, but his defense of Butterfly against her relations' crushing denunciation raged in his athletic singing of 'Ehi, dico: basta, basta,' the top As piercing the din of the relations' scorn, and 'Sbarazzate all'istante. In casa mia niente baccano e niente bonzeria.' Brandenburg voiced the Andante affettuoso 'Bimba, bimba, non piangere per gracchiar di ranocchi' with hypnotic tranquility that was echoed in his seductive delivery of the Andantino calmo 'Viene la sera.' His fervent delivery of 'Bimba dagli occhi pieni di malìa' in the love duet coruscated with passion, and he was the rare Pinkerton whose decision to join Cio-Cio San on the top C at the duet's close was justified by the gleaming solidity of the tone. Creeping into Act Three with shame already crippling the youthful gait with which he bestrode Act One, Brandenburg voiced Pinkerton's aria 'Addio fiorito asil di letizia e d'amor' with sincerity, the character's regret finding resonant outlets in the top A♭s and B♭. In this performance, Pinkerton's off-stage cries on top F♯s of 'Butterfly!' as Cio-Cio San silently dies were emotionally torturous. Significantly, seeing Butterfly's lifeless body still upright according to the Japanese tradition of dying honorably, it was Pinkerton who collapsed, his virility capitulating to the weight of his carelessness. Brandenburg's vocal comfort in the music was unmistakable, and it was wonderful to encounter in Raleigh what is rare even in the world's largest opera houses: a young, attractive Pinkerton who sang as strikingly as he looked.

Puccini's music for Cio-Cio San brings to mind Richard Strauss's instruction that his Salome should be sung by a teenaged soprano with an Isolde voice. After contending with one of the most demanding entrance scenes in opera, Cio-Cio San playfully declares herself to be fifteen years old, and one of the greatest challenges for a singing actress is credibly depicting the evolution of the child bride of Act One into the mature woman who embraces the fatal mandate of her centuries-old culture in the opera's final scene. Visually, soprano Talise Trevigne was the ideal Cio-Cio San. A petite, delicately-featured lady of great beauty, she did not merely wear her costumes but truly gave them life, inhabiting Butterfly's physical identity to a degree that blurred the boundary between everyday reality and the alternate reality of opera. Indeed, there are native Asian singers who are not so wholly natural as Cio-Cio San as Trevigne was, but hers was a connection with the character and her music at the molecular level rather than a studied, Stanislavskian impersonation. Making her entrance in Act One with the gracefully tuneful 'Ancora un passo, or via,' she soared to top B♭ and thrilled with the freshness of her sound. In fact, not one note of her performance was strained, strident, or wobbly. The disarming sweetness of her 'Siam giunte' was invigorating, and there was not even the slightest hint of self-consciousness in her utterance of 'Nessuno si confessa mai nato in povertà,' the evenness of the bottom octave of the voice counting for much. Her guileless articulation of 'Morto' in response to the question about her father contrasted markedly with the radiance of her account of the beautiful Andante 'Ieri sono salita tutta sola in secreto alla Missione.' Both 'Non piango più' and 'Siete alto, forte' were shaped with the restraint expected of a well-bred Japanese lady, but Cio-Cio San's new-found sensuality blossomed in Trevigne's exquisitely-phrased account of the Andante sostenuto 'Vogliatemi bene un bene piccolino,' the line rising through top B♭s to the glorious top C with which she surrendered to Pinkerton's ardor. The soprano's artless enunciation of 'Pigri ed obesi son gli dèi giapponesi' in Act Two drew laughs from the audience, but there was nothing funny about the despair of her 'Suzuki, è lungi la miseria?' This Butterfly gave great meaning to 'Perchè con tante cure la casa rifornì di serrature' and 'Io te lo dico,' her voice ringing with the conviction of her words. Trevigne made the famous 'Un bel dì, vedremo' an intimate statement of her faith and devotion no less galvanizing than Tosca's 'Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore,' rising to the top B♭s with seemingly limitless breath control. In the scene with Sharpless, her 'Io son la donna più lieta del Giappone' glowed with the joy of promises fulfilled, but the simplicity of Butterfly's happiness was upended in Trevigne's intense singing of the daunting Andante molto mosso 'Che tua madre dovrà prenderti in braccio ed alla pioggia e al vento andar per la città.' The climactic top B♭s poured from her throat like emotions that could no longer be controlled. The affection for her son that emanated from 'O mio piccolo amore, mia pena e mio conforto' was poignant, and few Cio-Cio Sans equal Trevigne's serenity in 'Scuoti quella fronda e dei suoi fior m'innonda.' She met the demands of Act Three without a trace of artifice, her voicing of 'Dormi, amor mio, dormi sul mio cor' eerily calm and comforting, not only quieting Dolore but restoring her own resolve. Her 'Tu Suzuki che sei tanto buona, non piangere!' was a clandestine final expression of love for her devoted maid and companion. Trevigne drained the color from her voice for the parlando 'Con onor muore chi non può serbar vita con onore,' but her singing of 'Tu, tu piccolo iddio! Amore, amore mio, fior di giglio e di rosa' was remarkable for the way in which the warmth of life gave way to the coldness of death. Few people in the audience are apt to have been unaware that Madama Butterfly ends with the heroine's suicide, but there were audible gasps when this performance's Cio-Cio San unaffectedly plunged her father's tantō into her neck. This was evidence of the singular force of Trevigne's portrayal of Butterfly. A beautiful sound is not all that is required to sing the rôle memorably, but the pure beauty of Trevigne's voice was unforgettable. In movement, in voice, and in expressivity, she was a Butterfly worthy of mention alongside Maria Callas, Eleanor Steber, Leontyne Price, and Renata Scotto.

There is an aphorism about even the blind squirrel occasionally finding acorns, and, applying the same logic, every opera lover occasionally witnesses performances that redefine their understanding and responses to composers, scores, particular rôles, or the genre as a whole. North Carolina Opera’s Madama Butterfly was a production that disclosed Puccini’s genius as a musician and man of the theatre in ways that in turns gladdened and broke the heart whether one was experiencing the opera for the first or the thousandth time. In truth, though, one might see Madama Butterfly a thousand times without ever seeing another performance as satisfying as this one.

IN PERFORMANCE: Giacomo Puccini's MADAMA BUTTERFLY at North Carolina Opera, October/November 2015 [Illustration of Sharpless reading Pinkerton's letter by Leopoldo Metlicovitz (1868 - 1944), ©  by Casa Ricordi]Qui sedete, legger con me volete questa lettera: Sharpless reads Pinkerton’s letter in Act Two of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly [Illustration by Leopoldo Metlicovitz, © by Casa Ricordi]