An exquisite Madama Butterfly is David B. Devan’s swansong for Opera Philadelphia

United StatesUnited States Puccini, Madama Butterfly: Soloists, Opera Philadelphia Chorus and Orchestra / Corrado Rovaris (conductor). Opera Philadelphia, Academy of Music, Philadelphia, 3.5.2024. (RP)

Karen Chia-ling Ho (Cio-Cio-San) © Sofia Negron Photography

Director – Ethan Heard
Sets – Yuki Izumihara
Costumes – Anita Yavich
Lighting – Connie Yun
Puppetry – Blind Summit Theatre
Puppets – Hua Hua Zhang
Chorus master – Elizabeth Braden

Cio-Cio-San – Karen Chia-ling Ho
Pinkerton – Anthony Ciaramitaro
Suzuki – Kristen Cho
Sharpless – Lucas Meachem
Goro – Martin Bakari
Bonze – Suchan Kim
Prince Yamadori – Kyle Miller
Kate Pinkerton – Anne Marie Stanley
Trouble – Jayden Wu

Opera Philadelphia marked a milestone with this production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. It was David B. Devan’s final offering as its general director and president and brings to a close an exciting chapter in the company’s history. Devan, who joined Opera Philadelphia in January 2006 and was appointed its general director in 2011, leaves the company at the end of the month.

Ethan Heard’s production epitomizes what has made Philadelphia one of the most exciting destinations for opera during Devan’s tenure. Devan prioritized new works, innovative stagings, an astonishing array of rising talent, engagement with the community and a commitment to social responsibility – all while adhering to the highest musical standards.

Anyone familiar with Heard’s work with New York’s Heartbeat Opera is aware that his imagination knows no bounds, and that he can work wonders on a shoestring budget. Opera Philadelphia gave him the opportunity to work on a much larger stage and with far greater resources. The results were impressive.

Heard brings nothing to Madama Butterfly that is not present in the libretto but illuminates one of its more unsettling themes. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, a lieutenant in the United States Navy, describes the fifteen-year Cio-Cio-San as ‘doll-like’, and he later exclaims ‘that toy is my wife’. ˙Heard simply reimagines Cio-Cio-San as an actual doll, created by puppet-artist Hua Hua Zhang.

Pinkerton removes the doll from her wooden case before the opera begins, and she is on stage throughout the opera. For Pinkerton, his bride is disposable, a notion that runs counter to Japanese culture where dolls are treasured and afforded a proper farewell. Pinkerton seeks to simply toss Cio-Cio-San aside, without so much as a goodbye.

Anthony Ciaramitaro (Pinkerton) © Sofia Negron Photography

The stage was bare except for a large, Western-style table and chairs, which symbolized the American home that Butterfly created for her husband. On the table rested a detailed model of a traditional Japanese house. During the ‘Flower Duet’, Cio-Cio-San and Suzuki decked the table with a profusion of flowers. Such simplicity demonstrated Heard and Izumihara’s restraint and taste in conceptualizing the opera.

Mood was established through projections of traditional Japanese scenes. A far more complex visual image was that of a butterfly pieced with stickpins, which transformed itself into Ho’s face wearing a haunted expression. It underscored the concerns expressed early in the opera by Butterfly about foreigners who capture and pin butterflies to preserve them, rather than let such delicate things of beauty live freely.

The doll’s presence on stage, however, was eclipsed by Karen Chia-ling Ho as Cio-Cio-San. Dressed in black and wearing no makeup, the soprano simply was Butterfly. With her naturalness and ease, Ho captured a young bride’s eagerness to please her husband. All lightness in her countenance faded and was later totally extinguished as she grasped the horrible reality that Pinkerton’s return meant for her.

Ho traced that emotional trajectory in a voice that was as ravishing and attention-grabbing as her presence, from an emotion-laden ‘Un bel di’ in which she expressed Cio-Cio-San’s unswerving belief that Pinkerton would return to her, until she bid goodbye to her son with simplicity and searing sound in ‘Tu, tu piccolo iddio’.

That is not to say that the doll was irrelevant. She was always a poignant presence, simultaneously observing and taking part in the action. The doll functioned best in the latter scenes of the opera when interacting with Trouble, Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton’s son, and in Butterfly’s final, desperate moments. The sight of the doll thrusting a dagger into her gut and twisting it was horrifying.

Opera Philadelphia also sought to play against the racial and ethnic tropes traditionally associated with the opera through casting. Asians and Asian-Americana performed all the important Japanese roles.

Kristen Cho captured Suzuki’s emotional range with the deftness of a Japanese calligrapher’s brush strokes. Her voice could be light and lovely as in the ‘Flower Duet’, or steely when overcome with despair, as when Sharpless reveals to her that Pinkerton has remarried and wishes to take their son back with him to America.

Martin Bakari’s Goro was breezy and light. With his lyric tenor and winning demeanor, Bakari supplied a touch of comic relief to the tragedy. Suchan Kim’s Bonze was a far more subtle characterization of Cio-Cio-San’s outraged uncle than is usually encountered. As Trouble, Jayden Wu commanded attention effortlessly, without singing a note.

Anthony Ciaramitaro’s ringing Italianate tenor and suave style made him an ideal Pinkerton. In ‘Dovunque al mondo’, Ciaramitaro expressed the American sailor’s callousness effortlessly and without exaggeration. He practically undressed Cio-Cio-San with his eyes while imagining the sensual delights that awaited him on his wedding night.

With his resonant, warm baritone, Anthony Clark Evans was a compassionate Sharpless. In addition to Suchan Kim, two other young singers made an impression in their company debuts: baritone Kyle Miller’s understated Yamadori, and mezzo-soprano Anne Marie Stanley in the unsympathetic role of Kate Pinkerton.

During the Act III orchestral prelude, images of women were projected on the screen. The first grouping was of famous sopranos who sang Cio-Cio-San in the early decades of the twentieth century, including Rosina Storchio, who originated the role in 1904 with Arturo Toscanini conducting; and Geraldine Farrar, who in 1907 was the first Butterfly at New York’s Metropolitan Opera with Enrico Caruso as Pinkerton. The young boys who appeared in some of the photos were all cherubic and blond.

These photographs were followed by those of Japanese and Japanese-Americans who challenged traditional role models in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They ranged from Ichiyo Higuchi (1872-1896), Japan’s first professional female writer of modern literature, to Patsy Mink (1927-2002), a Japanese-American attorney and politician from Hawaii, who was the first woman of color elected to the US House of Representatives.

The most remarkable story was that of Junkyo Ohishi (1888-1968), known as the ‘Handless Geisha’, whose father cut off her arms at the age of 17. She would go on to marry and have children and become a Buddhist nun.

Conductor Corrado Rovaris has been Devan’s partner in many of Opera Philadelphia’s triumphs over the past eighteen years. None of the visual imagery rivaled the beauty and emotion that Rovaris drew from the singers, chorus and orchestra alike. For Devan and Rovaris, the music always comes first.

Rick Perdian

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