Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Lyric Opera "Madama Butterfly" review by kellyluck

A new season at the Lyric Opera 
 Rating: 5

Madama Butterfly
Lyric Opera of Kansas City

Tuxes and tails were in abundance as I stepped off the escalator and into the Kauffman center for the opening night of the Lyric Opera's new season. There's something about opening night that brings out the peacock in one: dresses of all colors and cuts mingled with sharp-tailored suits, slacks, and the occasional kilt. Only a few stalwarts in business casual, clutching their drinks uncomfortably and looking like they were called in to fix the server but got lost (yours truly searched for cowboy hats in the mingling pre-show crowd, but alas: not even in Kansas City). Madame Butterfly is of course one of the classics of early 20th-century opera, and alongside La Boheme is probably Puccini's greatest known work. The short story upon which it based--itself allegedly based on actual events--is an affecting one, and has found life in numerous plays and films, including an early effort by Fritz Lang. Cio-Cio San (Elizabeth Caballero), a noble girl fallen on hard times, is arranged to be married to Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton (Dinyar Vania), a devil-may-care navy officer out to enjoy the world and taste from it what pleasures he can. He shows off his new home to U.S. Consul Sharpless (Weston Hurt), boasting that the lease and the marriage can be broken whenever he tires of them. Sharpless tries to warn him that Cio-Cio San believes she is entering a real, permanent American marriage, but Pinkerton just laughs it off, and toasts his future American wife. The wedding is held, during which it is revealed that Cio- Cio San has gone so far as to convert to "the American god," to the horror of her family. Pinkerton takes her in his arms, and they sing of their love in one of the more memorable duets in the opera.

Flash forward three years. Pinkerton is long gone, with Cio-Cio San waiting for him to return... and introduce him to his new son. Unfortunately, Pinkerton has long since abandoned her, and when he does return, it is with his new American wife (Angela Gribble). Upon being informed he has a son, he offers to take the child so that they may raise him as their own. Cio-Cio San reluctantly agrees, and as he comes to collect the child, she commits ritual suicide, having lost her love.

The performances are strong, and do proper service to the music. Caballero's Cio-Cio San is wonderful, taking the upper registers fearlessly and bringing a warmth to the character. From her appearance in the almost etherial "One Step More" through the prolonged Act I duet, the justly famous "One Beautiful Day" and the final suicide aria "To Die With Honor", she is everything this reviewer could hope for. Vania's Pinkerton was in excellent voice, and Hurt as Sharpless brings a note of humanity to his role. Also of note were Doug Jones as Goro the marriage broker and Elizabeth Tredent as Suzuki, Caio-Cio San's loyal servant.

The presentation of the opera is a simple one: the late Colin Graham created a look that is simple, elegant, one would even say quintessentially Japanese. A series of sliding paper walls and movable levels provides the bulk of the scenery, with full use being made of their mobility and the use of silhouettes (most affectingly employed, for example, in the long vigil that takes us from Act 2 to Act 3). Musical performances were strong all round, with Ward Holmquist ably guiding the orchestra through Puccini's memorable music. There's always the risk of the occasional opening night glitch, but if such occurred it escaped this viewer's notice.

Overall, it must be said that this season is decidedly off to a promising start. Those who might have expected something a bit more elaborate will have to remind themselves that this is a close, intimate story, and not given to grand acts of stagecraft. Here, very much is done with very little, and it is precisely what this production needs. As to David C Woolard's costumes, on the other hand, it must be said he absolutely pulls out all the stops. The Japanese characters are dressed beautifully in a riot of colors, the wedding party an absolute feast for the eyes. Even Cio-Cio San's obi goes from wedding dress to shroud while being perfectly suited to its purpose.

The story, noted before, is rather an old one, and keeps going because--melodrama or no--it resonates. In this time of yet more international adventurism, it is hardly difficult to identify with the story elements (indeed, if there is not someone somewhere working on a version that takes place in the Middle East, yours truly would be very much surprised). It is a story that bears retelling, and we are fortunate to have such a talented group of performers, musicians and others to tell it for us.

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