By Robert Croan
The title role in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is one of the pinnacles for every opera soprano. Sandra Lopez has performed this arduous role more than 50 times in nine productions, and in her Broward Center performance Jan. 30 (the fifth of six in Florida Grand Opera’s current run; the last one is tonight) she came through the hurdles unscathed and victorious.
The much-beloved heroine – Cio-Cio San – is a geisha girl sold in a sham marriage to an American naval lieutenant, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, who goes home and marries an American woman, returning three years later to ask for the child she has had in his absence. Cio-Cio-San’s fate is pathetic rather than tragic, and it’s one of the great challenges for each protagonist to traverse the journey from innocence to maturity without drowning in sentimentality and theatrical clichés.
It’s also a monumental vocal task, demanding a light, girlish sound in Act 1, morphing into the outbursts of a dramatic soprano as the opera progresses. And it’s a test of sheer endurance, as the character is on stage almost all the time from first entrance to final gasp.
Much of the current production’s success is due to the subtle, imaginative staging of E. Loren Meeker, who takes a traditional approach, amid colorful period sets by David P. Gordon (borrowed from Sarasota Opera), adding small touches that give a contemporary slant to the characters’ thoughts.
At the start of Act 2, for example, Cio-Cio-San is seated at a Christian prie-Dieu while her servant Suzuki prays at a Japanese shrine a few feet away. At the end, the heroine hesitates before committing hara-kiri, only going through with the act after she hears Pinkerton’s voice. Meeker also underplays the now ludicrous racist and misogynistic stereotypes of both Asians and Americans perpetuated by Puccini and his librettists when the opera was created in 1904. She even tries to elicit a little sympathy for the contemptible Pinkerton toward the end.
Musically, conductor Ramón Tebar brought out many of Puccini’s unexpected modernisms in the harmony and orchestration, though there were some unwontedly fuzzy moments early on. The brunt of the vocal work goes to Butterfly, and Lopez, with a soprano sound on the light side of lyric, was impeccable in her entrance, capping her solo with a right-on, optional high D-flat. She gained in passion to join tenor Joshua Guerrero in an ardent, full-throated climax of their love duet, maintaining nonetheless an aural and physical air of innocence.
Curiously, her rendition of “Un bel dì,” the opera’s most famous aria, seemed a little held back, but she gained in dramatic tension as the second act progressed, delivering “Che tua madre” – the opera’s emotional vortex – with new-found power and intensity. She interacted beautifully with young Jake Hernadez, who genuinely charmed the audience in the non-singing part of Butterfly’s child, “Trouble.”
From there Lopez pulled back again, cannily husbanding her resources so as to let go full strength for a devastating delivery of Butterfly’s final moments.
Guerrero’s Pinkerton embodied physical and vocal muscle throughout. Not a subtle interpreter, with a baritonal quality in his middle range, the tenor threw away some of the role’s lyrical lines, compensating with exhilarating sustained high notes at every opportunity. He joined Lopez for a thrilling double high C conclusion to Act 1, scattering ringing Bs and B-flats elsewhere as allotted to his character – notably in Pinkerton’s brief belated aria of remorse, “Addio, fiorito asil.”
Grant Youngblood, replacing a previously announced artist as the American consul Sharpless, sang his thankless lines with the solidity and heft of a Verdi baritone, dominating ensembles and adding a strong stage persona to the mix. Mezzo-soprano Stephany Peña, an FGO studio artist, acted Suzuki with fervor and conviction, though her acerbic timbre blended spottily with Lopez’s soft-grained singing in the flower duet. She was moving, however, in the segment where Suzuki realizes that she is the one who will have to break the bad news to Cio-Cio-San of Pinkerton’s “real” marriage in America.
Nicholas Nestorak’s penetrating tenor, not the pleasantest sound, was effective as the marriage broker Goro – a thoroughly nasty piece of work. By contrast, Rafael Porto’s Bonze (an equally nasty piece of work in the scheme of things) was insufficiently menacing despite a bass-baritone voice of significant depth and presence.
Michael Miller was more imposing physically than vocally as the rejected Prince Yamadori (doubling in Act 1 as the official registrar), while Shaina Martinez was staged to make Kate Pinkerton’s part more prominent than her five or so lines of music would suggest.
FGO’s final performance of Madama Butterfly takes place tonight at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, Fort Lauderdale. Curtain is 7:30 pm. For tickets, call 800-741-1010 or visit fgo.org; alternatively, call the Broward Center at 954-462-0222 or visit www.browardcenter.org.