By Márcio Bezerra
A 15-year-old geisha is bought in marriage and later abandoned by an American naval officer in — of all places — Nagasaki. The storyline of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is ripe with political and gender-related controversies. Yet, most traditional productions avoid tackling the
problematic subjects head-on.
That was the case with Palm Beach Opera’s latest production of the beloved opera, which opened its 2023 season Friday at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts.
To be sure, no one can expect a regional opera company with three annual productions to engage in controversy with edgy productions, but even Palm Beach Opera’s previous staging of Butterfly in 2017 highlighted (albeit discreetly) the more uncomfortable political ramifications of the work. The result Friday night was a well-sung, yet soporific, version of the popular masterwork.
In the title role of Cio-Cio-San, soprano Jennifer Rowley displayed strong acting skills and a beautiful, controlled instrument. Her voice grew as the evening progressed and, by the time of her last aria, “Tu, tu, piccolo iddio,” she had the audience in her hands.
Unfortunately, she was not helped by conductor Carlo Montanaro, who directed the competent Palm Beach Opera Orchestra with a heavy hand. Throughout the work, the orchestra played way too loud, covering most of the singers. Additionally, Montanaro’s swift tempi did not allow the artists to indulge in the lyrical lines so typical of Puccini.
As the American naval officer Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, tenor Jonathan Burton was also constantly drowned out by the orchestra, although his “Addio, fiorito asil” was sung with unmatched authority and ardor.
As Suzuki, mezzo-soprano Renee Tatum had a strong second act, her voice beautifully filling every corner of Dreyfoos Hall.
Troy Cook was a competent Sharpless, the American consul, though the only true standout in this production was Joshua Sanders as Goro. His perfect diction and powerful voice resonated even when Montanaro directed the orchestra as if there were no singers on the stage.
Minor roles, played mostly by resident artists, were sung with confidence. As the non-singing son of Cio-Cio-San, Sorrow, the young James Ayoub played the role admirably, taking ownership of a part that is usually little more than a cute prop in most productions.
Scenery from the New York City Opera was exquisitely beautiful – perhaps the most beautiful for Palm Beach Opera in recent memory – filling the stage without looking cumbersome, especially when the garden bridge was removed for acts two and three. Lighting by Anshuman Bhatia provided some beautiful moments, especially at the end of the second act.
All in all, a nice night at the opera. But, for those of us expecting a little more than nice entertainment, a missed opportunity.