Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” is fraught with heartache and tragedy, but the most poignant moment of the Lyric Opera’s opening-night performance came not during the opera itself, but at the curtain call.
Soprano Elizabeth Caballero, who had just delivered a stunning performance in the title role, sank to her knees in tears as the audience at the Kauffman Theatre rose to its feet. She had never performed the demanding role before and had been nervous about taking it on. But after her inspiring debut as the tragic heroine she may have felt like an enormous weight had been lifted.
Anyway you cut it, this was a personal triumph for Caballero, because after the final curtain her crystalline voice — delicate yet powerful, passionate yet controlled — is what lingers most vividly in the one’s memory.
The production itself, directed by Mark Streshinsky, is a visually sumptuous affair, employing spare but elegant scenery and props designed by Neil Patel and costumes created by David C. Woolard for the Minnesota Opera.
The costumes, from the multi-hued pastels of traditional kimonos to the crisp whites of naval uniforms and the title character’s wedding-night gown, are visually arresting throughout. The scenic design creates a panoramic effect, with Japanese screen doors that can be reconfigured easily, an expansive floor of polished blonde wood and a dark moveable platform suggestive of mahogany. Behind it all is an enormous scrim which can be lit to suggest sunrise or a night sky.
Indeed, Kendall Smith’s lighting makes an enormous contribution to the emotional range of this production, changing hue and intensity with infinitely subtle variations.
The wigs and makeup, designed by Joanne Middleton Weaver, serve the production well, judging by my vantage point in the mezzanine.
Puccini, working with librettists Giuseppe Giacose and Luigi Illica, based his opera on an American one-act play, “Madame Butterfly” by David Belasco, which was first staged in New York in 1900. The play, in turn, was based on a short story by John Luther Long. Considering the brevity of the source material, you can’t help but question Puccini’s desire to transform it into a three-act opera. The Lyric production does, indeed, feel rather long — although Streshinsky wisely chose to have only one intermission by combining the second and third acts.
Set in Nagasaki, the inherently sentimental story depicts a provisional marriage, if you will, between an American naval officer, B.F. Pinkerton, and 15-year-old Cio-Cio-San, whose once prosperous family has fallen on hard times. For the loutish Pinkerton, the attraction is clear enough: Under Japanese law he can declare a “divorce” simply by leaving. The unspoiled Cio-Cio-San, on the other hand, devotes herself to her new husband, adopting his religion and preparing to be a “good American” because she believes she will one day join him in the U.S.
Pinkerton ships out, leaving a pregnant Cio-Cio-San behind. When he finally returns, with an American wife, he discovers that he and Cio-Cio-San have a three-year-old son. Cio-Cio-San has spurned other offers of marriage because she fully expects to be reunited with Pinkerton.
Needless to say, things don’t end well.
Music director Ward Holmquist, conducting the Kansas City Symphony, captures the lushness of Puccini’s deeply romantic score, including an extended instrumental interlude depicting the passing of night as Cio-Cio-San waits for Pinkerton’s return.
Fine voices in this production include tenor Dinyar Vania as Pinkerton; soprano Elizabeth Tredent as Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San’s handmaiden; baritone Weston Hurt as Sharpless, the American consul; and tenor Doug Jones as Goro, the devious marriage broker.
In terms of acting, nobody surpasses Caballero, whose conception of Cio-Cio-San is so clearly executed that we never question the character’s tragic arc. Tredent is also quite good as the loyal Suzuki and Hurt delivers an impeccable supporting performance as Sharpless.
Jones performs Goro well, although the character has all the charm of a buzzing gnat. Vania successfully captures Pinkerton’s condescending, supercilious attitudes in the early going but is less successful when the character is overcome with remorse later on.
It would be easy enough to dismiss this material as dressed-up melodrama, but opera follows its own aesthetic rules and is under no obligation to reflect what most of us think of as “reality.” Even so, if you step back and take a look at what this piece says about sexism, American imperialism and colonial attitudes, and then consider what some of our politicians are saying today, you may decide that a 1904 Italian opera is remarkably relevant.