There are any number of tragic female heroines in the centuries since opera was created, but it’s hard to think of one more sympathetic than the Japanese geisha Cio-Cio-San, traduced by her caddish American husband and forced to take the only way out she knows.
That’s Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, and for this opera to come across successfully, it’s important that the Cio-Cio-San dominate the action, and in Palm Beach Opera’s production of this beloved work Sunday afternoon, she did.
The Moldavian soprano Inna Los, who has sung this role numerous times now, was a deeply sympathetic Butterfly, with an interesting stage manner in which she kept herself somewhat detached from the people around her, so that she always seemed as though she was in her own private drama. Los has a large, round, darkly colored voice with plenty of power and the ability to command the acoustics of the house, in this case the Kravis Center.
The very large audience Sunday afternoon cheered her first entrance, her intense and forceful Un bel dì, and acclaimed her at the curtain. In the love duet with Pinkerton, she turned on some more heat, and her final climb to the high C at the end was thrilling.
Scott Quinn, a Texan essaying the role of Pinkerton for the first time, is a big-shouldered, handsome young man who fits the physical profile of what you’d expect from a confident, swaggering emissary of a country on the make, and his acting had that same broad machismo. He has a strong, virile tenor, with a somewhat narrow Italianate sound that was exciting to hear at its best. In the very last bars of the duet Sunday afternoon, his voice went out, and he had to sing harmony in the last line rather than joining Los on the C.
Call that a novice’s nerves; Quinn makes a compelling Pinkerton, and it was a pity that Palm Beach Opera used the standard version of the opera, which was Puccini’s fifth revision, and not the longer Brescia version, which gives Pinkerton more to do and fills out his motivation much better. Quinn deserved more stage time.
One of the best things about Palm Beach Opera these days is that the troupe is able to get so many good singers for the secondary roles. The Latvian mezzo Zanda Švēde, making her debut with the company, was a fine Suzuki whose voice has a beautiful color that was compelling on its own and lovely to hear in duet with Butterfly. It would be good to hear her again here, perhaps in a Mozart role.
Mexican baritone Luis Ledesma, now a familiar face on the Kravis stage, was an excellent Sharpless, with a solid, impressive voice and a suitably diplomatic stage presence. A pleasant surprise came from the Taiwanese tenor Joseph Hu, who made a memorable impression as Goro the marriage broker. It’s rare to hear this small role so well-sung, or to have him make as much of an impact as Hu so laudably did; he made the most of his part, and it paid off.
Erik Anstine, a bass from Oregon, was a most impressive Bonze, wielding a very large and bronze-like sound in his couple minutes in Act I, and New Yorker Joshua Conyers, in his similarly brief time as Prince Yamadori in Act II, sang with an attractive, nimble baritone. Also distinctive was the Texas baritone Andrew Simpson as the Imperial Commissioner, who delivered his few lines emphatically, and Jessica Fishenfeld, whose Kate Pinkerton was tender and demure.
Director Sam Helfrich, who directed Ben Moore’s Enemies two years ago for Palm Beach Opera, brought some inventive touches to this staging, which was done in traditional guise with a beautiful set by Patrick Clark for Canada’s Pacific Opera Victoria. As she waits for Pinkerton to arrive in Act II, Butterfly sits in a chair on her porch and lights up a cigarette; she had, after all, offered her visitors something to smoke. And in the first act, the chorus of friends snapped their heads sharply to the right in unison disapproval after Sharpless says something tactless.
I liked both of these ideas; they made sense with Butterfly’s insistence on being American, and with her equally firm understanding of the culture she comes from. The cigarette smoking did away with the usual idea of her sitting motionless through the night as she waits for Pinkerton, but it had more realism that way, and somehow Los’s fidgeting in her chair as she smoked brought home Cio-Cio-San’s torment and unease over her husband’s return.
Conductor David Stern led this masterwork with vigor and swift tempi, and the Palm Beach Opera Orchestra sounded lush and brilliant. Choral director Greg Ritchey got good results out of his wedding guests in Act I, who were precise even after they’d left the stage, bitterly reproaching Butterfly for rejecting her culture.
Although this was an admirably sung and played Madama Butterfly that was creatively and freshly staged, it also seemed somewhat rushed Sunday afternoon, and that may have been due in part to extra cuts made in the score. Puccini tended to cut too much in revisions, and there were more here; the minor character of Yakuside, for instance, virtually disappeared, as did the mother and the aunt, and without some of the Pinkerton-Sharpless dialogue in Act I, things moved along a little too quickly.
It wouldn’t have hurt anything or bored the audience to have another five minutes of backstory, and it would have added some needed heft to a performance that otherwise was impressively sung and acted, and made a strong opening to the company’s new season.