Review: Pittsburgh Opera soars with 'Madama Butterfly'

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Cio-Cio San has a rough go of it in Puccini's much-loved "Madama Butterfly."

She had to become a Geisha when her father was forced to commit seppuku. At 15 she was married off to a self-centered American naval captain, Lt. Pinkerton, who has no intention of ever returning. After three excruciating years of waiting for him, and worry she will not be able to support their son, Pinkerton returns with his "real" wife to claim the child. Butterfly follows her father's path in one of opera's most chilling scenes.

But the truly tragic figures in any production are the stage director and the set designer. The entire 2 1/2 hours of music over three acts occurs in one place, the "flimsy" house that Pinkerton buys for his port-of-call wife. It's the operatic equivalent of "12 Angry Men," and directors often make more trouble for themselves trying to make it dynamic and more interesting.

Not so for Crystal Manich, stage director for the Pittsburgh Opera's production of "Madama Butterfly" that opened Saturday night at the Benedum Center, Downtown, in a production created by John Conklin. Ms. Manich, a Pittsburgh native who has degrees in directing and arts management from Carnegie Mellon University, called upon CMU lighting director Cindy Limauro to add variety in the form of color.

These were not highlights; the color drenched the simple screen walls of the house and the plain interior completely. Blood red, blanched yellow, glowing pink and cool blue -- each was tied appropriately to the plot. It was a simple plan, but it enhanced the action without taking, well, the spotlight from the singers. In some cases, this was a good thing: tenor Bryan Hymel's voice was luminous and bright in its own right. It was the equivalent of a burning filament, yet adjustable in intensity to suit the arrogance of the opening, the passion of the expansive duet that ends Act 1 and the guilt at the end. This was a fantastic Pittsburgh Opera debut for the American.

Less so was that of his counterpart, Italian soprano Maria Luigia Borsi. While she let her character evolve as the plot develops, she had issues with her vocal passaggio. The chest voice was rough, in stark contrast to her often floating and bell-like upper register.

Last heard as Eugene Onegin, baritone Dwayne Croft impressed as Sharpless, the American consul who watches helplessly as the tragedy unfolds. Warm and resonant, his timbre captured the emotional depth of the character while simultaneously displaying an avuncular persona. Mika Shigematsu underwhelmed as Suzuki -- her tone dull and monochromatic.

The rest of the cast was adequate; not spectacular but not poor. Average might be the better word, in terms of singing. I did appreciate Joseph Gaines' portrayal of Goro as fully human. This character can sometimes be played as despicable, but the marriage broker does look out for Butterfly, even desperately trying to arrange a second marriage with the rich Prince Yamadori (Kyle Olvier) that would set her up for life.

Kate Pinkerton (Nicole Rodin) and the Bonze (Joseph Barron) rounded out the cast. As usual, nearly everyone was upstaged by Butterfly's son, in this case a patient, attentive and cute young-un, Margot Teh (Daniel Frontz has the role Tuesday and Sunday). It always amazes me how directors convince such young children to handle the part so well.

Ms. Manich's blocking was nuanced, in contrast to her bold lighting. Puccini's glorious music is, of course, what powers this essentially static plot. But she directed a number of movements and glances that gave the action an unaffected atmosphere.

Two other choices were more striking. One was an effective dream sequence, during the overnight vigil, in which three visions of Pinkerton tantalize Butterfly. The other was having her commit suicide facing the audience with no screen, her child playing nearby and Pinkerton arriving just before she does it, as if he could save her. This played too much with the established convention for my taste.

French conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud's energetic leading of the pit orchestra created an enveloping ambiance. His was a compelling interpretation that somehow was chamber orchestralike while also being intensely emotional, and the musicians responded well.

'Madama Butterfly'

Where: Pittsburgh Opera at Benedum Center, Downtown.

When: 7 p.m. Tuesday; 8 p.m. Friday; and 2 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: Start at $11; or 412-456-6666.


Classical music critic Andrew Druckenbrod: or 412-263-1750. He blogs at Twitter: @druckenbrod. First Published March 18, 2013 12:00 AM


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