IU’s ‘Madama Butterfly’ worth drive to Butler to see

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“Madama Butterfly” is one of those operas for which you must have the right talent to portray the central character. If you don’t, it shouldn’t be done.

Fortunately, the current new production of Giacomo Puccini’s heartrending masterwork, as staged by the Indiana University Opera Theater, is twice fortunate: both sopranos portraying Butterfly or Cio-Cio-San have been carefully and successfully cast.

On opening night in the Musical Arts Center, last Friday, Marlen Nahhas offered us a soprano both powerful enough and dramatically intense to fulfill the demands of Puccini’s music and what the music imparts theatrically.

One heard faith in her voice, the faith of a very young bride staunch in the belief, even after three years of waiting, that her B.F. Pinkerton, her American naval lieutenant of a cad husband, will return to her. One heard maturation in her voice, of a 15-year-old becoming a woman and a mother faced with what will become mounting consequences. One heard tragedy in her voice, for a heroine Puccini considered brave as could be but victimized by her world and by the courage of her convictions.

On Saturday evening, Mathilda Edge took over the role. And the same needs to be said about her satisfying work. Again, musically, Edge turned into that unfortunate and admirable heroine. The faith was there. And the maturation. And the tragedy.

That was so even though their voices differed. In Marlen Nahhas’s soprano, one heard strains of silk, a rugged yet soft, pliant element that rounded out the mellifluous nature of her native instrument. In Mathilda Edge’s soprano, that noticeable extra element was steel, a band of the metallic that seemed to symbolize strength and determination.

Undoubtedly helped along dramatically by the counsel of guest stage director Lesley Koenig, they turned into Cio-Cio-Sans, despite the fact that, physically speaking, neither approximated the very young, delicate geisha Puccini had in mind. Singers that look so are not easy to find. Hard work and musical strength made the difference work in this staging.

All that said, there is no workable production of “Madama Butterfly” without several other requirements:

• Although Pinkerton’s part is not long (he appears only in the first act and briefly in the third), the tenor who sings that role must be very good, with a voice both lyrically tender and large enough to be heard above orchestral rises of sound, which Puccini supplies in abundance. We’ve been fortunate here with tenors of late, and are again in this “Butterfly” production. Justin Stolz on opening night and Trey Smagur on the next both proved to be singers with voices of excellent quality and sufficient scope. Dramatically, they had sufficient swagger. More importantly, each gave his Cio-Cio-San a well-matched partner in the gorgeous love duet that ends Act 1, probably the most beautiful such scene that Puccini ever wrote and one requiring two impassioned, radiantly-voiced singers. Stolz and Smagur supplied the goods.

• Orchestrally speaking, Puccini’s “Butterfly” score is a wonder of touches that give the music its pungent and poignant flavors. The orchestral score is bulging with technical difficulties; thus, a qualified pit orchestra is a must. The IU Philharmonic fulfills that must, with quality to spare.

• To make the orchestra accomplish what it must accomplish, a conductor of experience and lofty talent needs to be wielding the baton. In the resident Arthur Fagen, IU Opera Theater has such a conductor. Maestro Fagen contributed the appropriate leadership to both the pit musicians and the singers on stage. He was the stabilizer and the inspirer for everything musical.

• The women’s choir that musically introduces Cio-Cio-San to the stage in Act 1 must be able to convey dream and cream with their voices, in one of the most haunting such moments in all of opera. Chorus master Walter Huff’s young ladies did their job stunningly.

Now, I happen to be a traditionalist when it comes to “Madama Butterfly.” Most of Leslie Koenig’s directing was to the point and effective. However, in Act 1, I expected the chorus portraying Japanese women to introduce Butterfly to the stage, not the opposite, for some strange reason. And in the closing scene, when our brutally scarred and betrayed heroine chooses suicide to other possible options, I prefer to see most attention given to her and less to her young son, despite the fact that this production’s Sorrow, the son, is portrayed dutifully and obediently by Mira Vamos. Mira is also far older than Sorrow should be, but then, I cannot remember ever seeing a Sorrow of the right age; it wouldn’t be possible to keep a 2- or 3-year-old in line on stage. Puccini failed to take care of that issue.

In matters of scenery, again as a traditionalist, I prefer to see a house of some sort on stage. IU’s new production has no house save little toy-sized ones that hang above as a sort of roof. There are platforms instead of rooms and other spaces. But, admittedly, the set by Steven Kemp, a much-admired designer, offers a fluency of motion and a picture worth looking at. Also worth looking at are the beautiful costumes designed by Linda Pisano. As usual, Patrick Mero’s lighting adds to the looks when and wherever they are needed.

Were you to see both casts, you’d probably come up with choices, but most every singer is more than adequate, including the two baritones playing the hapless American consul Sharpless, Jonathan Bryan and Eric Smedsrud. Far stronger than adequate are the two mezzos who portray Butterfly’s faithful and worried servant Suzuki with formidable fervor, Kaitlyn McMonigle and Liz Culpepper. Tenors Darian Clonts and Bradley Bickhardt give personality to Goro, the busybody marriage broker, and two other baritones, Ji Lu and Adam Walton, display fury in abundance as Butterfly’s fanatical uncle, The Bonze.

Next weekend’s performances are in Indianapolis at Clowes Hall on the Butler University campus. If you haven’t seen this production, I’d suggest you go, despite the distance.

By Peter Jacobi H-T Reviewer © HTO 2016 | pjacobi@heraldt.com

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