Seattle Madama Butterfly Shows Hand of Genius

United StatesUnited States  Puccini, Madama Butterfly: Seattle Opera, soloists, Julian Kovatchev (conductor), McCaw Hall, Seattle, 5 & 11/5/2012 (BJ)

Lieutenant Pinkerton: Stefano Secco (tenor)/Nathaniel Peake (tenor)
Goro: Doug Jones (tenor)
Sharpless: Brett Polegato (baritone)
Cio-Cio-San: Patricia Racette (soprano)/Ausrine Stundyte (soprano)
Imperial Commissioner: Jonathan Silvia (bass-baritone)
Registrar: Joseph Lattanzi (baritone)
The Bonze: Michael Devlin (bass-baritone
Prince Yamadori: David Krohn (baritone)
Cio-Cio-San’s Child, Sorrow: Gabriella Mercado/Elizabeth Janes
Kate Pinkerton: Carissa Castaldo (soprano)

Peter Kazaras (director)
Susan Benson (set and costumes)
Duane Schuler (lighting)
Joyce Degenfelder (hair and makeup)
Beth Kirchhoff (chorus master)
Philip A. Kelsey, David McDade, Allen Perriello (musical preparation)

It takes a stage director of genius to make me enjoy Madama Butterfly. Fortunately, Seattle Opera had one on hand for its ravishing new production of my least-favorite Puccini opera.

Why do I (or did I!) dislike the work? Partly because, in strong contrast to Tosca, with its fascinating and mostly admirable pair of lovers, the story of the former geisha who marries an American naval officer is saddled with a tenor lead—you can hardly call him a “hero”—of surpassingly repulsive character. And partly because, again judged next to Tosca, the music of Butterly tends to sentimentality rather than to the powerful dramatic heft of the earlier work.

Enter Peter Kazaras. The company stalwart is a director with a penchant for surprising, even outrageous, interpretations of familiar operas. After a Midsummer Night’s Dream set in an English boarding school and an Enfant et les sortilèges with its action transferred to a subway station, I was unsure what to expect from his take on Butterfly.

But Kazaras never does anything eccentric for the sake of being outrageous: he does it to illuminate important aspects of an opera that we might otherwise never have thought of. I had certainly never imagined that what Madama Butterfly needs is restraint. Kazaras had the wit to come to that conclusion. There is nothing remotely eccentric about his production, which unfolds with moving clarity and grace on simple but handsome sets and costumes originally designed by Susan Benson for the Canadian Opera Company. Kazaras pointedly avoided literalness: when Butterfly told Suzuki to pick flowers, it took only about five seconds for the latter to go offstage and return with massive bouquets obviously straight from the florist’s shop—and the effect was entirely charming. Duane Schuler’s masterfully atmospheric lighting enhanced the magic of the whole, and Bulgarian conductor Julian Kovatchev, in his Seattle debut, led the score with a delicacy that meshed perfectly with the director’s vision—the pianissimo of the “waiting” interlude before the last act had to be almost unheard to be believed. The change of orchestral sonority, incidentally, at the moment when Butterfly’s extended family first arrived on the scene, with its warming admixture of harp tone, tellingly illustrated the difference in Puccini’s treatment respectively of the American and the Japanese characters in the story.

Patricia Racette is the ranking Cio-Cio San on today’s international operatic scene, and her company debut was eagerly anticipated. I’m sure I’ll place myself in a minority by saying that hers in not my favorite kind of soprano voice. At the opposite extreme to the rounded tone-production of many illustrious forerunners, it is a voice with a sort of edge to it—for historically-minded readers, the closest parallel I can think of is the famous Croatian soprano Zinka Milanov. But as an instrument for expressing emotion it is superlative; she produces with it a line of majestic span and firmness; she sounded as good at the end of the evening as at the beginning; and in her total dramatic identification with the role she simply was Butterfly.

Where Racette was all nuance and tenderness, Stefano Secco, who sang with impressive evenness of tone, and I intend no ironic innuendo when I praise him for skillfully showing how one-dimensional Pinkerton is. To ease the burden on singers occasioned by tight scheduling, Seattle Opera usually offers double casts in some of the most substantial roles. The Pinkerton in the second cast was the American tenor Nathaniel Peake, who added to the character’s one-dimensionality a certain lumpishness, retrospectively illuminating the degree of ne’er-do-well charm that had leavened Secco’s portrayal. But the second-cast Cio-Cio-San, Lithuanian soprano Ausrine Stundyte, also in her company debut, emerged as an entirely worthy cast-companion for Racette, singing beautifully—especially in several spellbinding pianissimos—and achieving a Butterfly just as humanly sympathetic as her colleague’s.

As Kate, Pinkerton’s new American wife, Carissa Castaldo swanned around coolly with her elegant parasol, presenting—no doubt under Kazaras’s tutelage—an very picture of unconcern at the tragedy unfolding before her. The only sympathetic American character is the consul Sharpless, whose decency Brett Polegato vividly evoked: his pained yet inevitably impotent impatience at Pinkerton’s fecklessness illustrated how galling it must be for such an official to have to serve the interests of so deplorable a compatriot.

Sarah Larsen’s compassionate Suzuki and Doug Jones’s watchful Goro completed a superb roster of principals, backed in the small roles by equally admirable performers—including two little girls whose portrayals of Sorrow charmed the audience no end. And one of the most exciting aspects of Seattle Opera’s presentation of the work was to offer a simulcast at the nearby Key Arena, where several thousand either current or, hopefully, future opera-lovers were able to witness the opening-night performance free of charge, bringing the total audience number that night to some 7,500.

Bernard Jacobson

Part of this review appeared also in the Seattle Times.