The Virginia Opera Association closed its current “Be Tempted” season with one of operatic literature’s most well known, most done works: Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.”
Because of its popularity and repeated performances, it’s also one of the most endangered operatic works in the sense that too many directors think it’s important to alter traditional stagings and offer something different to cast a fresh perspective on it.
Fortunately, VOA director Richard Gammon allowed the essential elements of “Butterfly” to fly in a production that offered beauty, elegance and tradition that movingly meshed with the telling of this story about belief and betrayal, passion and arrogance, and love given sincerely and sincerely not so.
The anticipation of this “Butterfly” filled the Carpenter Theatre, Sunday, and that anticipation was well rewarded in a smashing performance, the VOA delivering the vocal and dramatic goods that drew us in and drew out tears and sniffles.
Prior to the VOA “Butterfly” run, some told me they were “Butterfly-ed” out, having seen so many of them over the years, and opted not to take this one in. Well, those folk missed the chance to see a perfect production that was dramatically balanced and vocally superb, an endeavor that worked to add more power and tragedy to the finale than most.
Readers Digest: Butterfly (aka Cio-Cio-San) is a geisha who was brokered into a sham marriage to Navy Lieutenant Pinkerton. To him, it was a chance to live a carefree life with an attractive young girl and then head back to America and find a real wife. To her, it was as serious as can be, converting to Pinkerton‘s Christianity and his western ways. In doing so, she became an outcast in her own land, one who lost her family, husband, son, honor, and, adhering to the “…die with honor when one can no longer live with honor” inscribed on her dagger, life.
Soprano Danielle Pastin, a singer with Met Opera creds, was marvelous as “Butterfly.” Dramatically, she embraced the qualities of the shy, young geisha whose hopes were dashed and whose life was destroyed. Vocally, Pastin was a big time “wow.” Her gorgeous, crystalline-quality full voice elicited chills of thrills over her defined lyricism, fluidity, and expressiveness. She commanded attention and got it in a sensational sing.
Also vocally and dramatically praise worthy was mezzo-soprano Kristen Choi as Suzuki, Butterfly’s servant. Her portrayal was sincere, her every movement and facial expression purposeful. Like Pastin’s, hers is a big sound, one that filled the house and heart with emotion. Their moments together were musically and emotionally rich.
Most productions cast Pinkerton as a cad. But, here, despite early-on knavishness, he ultimately shows credible regret over his actions, which added to the drama and tragedy.
The success of this transformation was due Matthew Vickers who allowed Pinkerton’s heart to beat. Well paired with Pastin, his tenor, while at times seemingly reticent, rose to heroic levels when required and was resoundingly convincing.
Top notch deliveries were also offered by baritone Levi Hernandez as American consul Sharpless; Julius Ahn as marriage broker Goro; Hidenori Inque as Bronze who turned the family from Butterfly; and Taeeun Moon as potential suitor Prince Yamadori. Fine, too, was the chorus whose wedding procession and “Humming Chorus” were delicately done.
Adding to the excellence of this “Butterfly” were the visually appealing, traditional set, complete with falling cherry blossoms; dramatic lighting design; and superb costumes.
Conductor Adam Turner was in perfect sync with the beautifully sensitive and dramatic score, the vocalists and the Richmond Symphony, which responded with artistic shine to his every nuanced beat, making this a really powerful “Butterfly,” one I think even those jaded viewers would have found thoughtful and memorable.
Shulson, a Williamsburg resident, has been covering the arts for more than 40 years. He makes a guest appearance in Margaret Truman's "Murder at the Opera."