Poor Butterfly! Not only is she abandoned by her family and deserted by her faithless lover - this time she also had the misfortune to come to town the same night as Kiri Te Kanawa.
Actually that did not hurt attendance as much as might be supposed, as a nearly full house greeted this production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" Friday at Kingsbury Hall. Presented by Western Opera Theater, the touring arm of the San Francisco Opera Center, it also played Cedar City, St. George, Price, Park City and, Saturday, Logan, at Utah State University.Indeed the biggest casualty was the orchestra, whose burden, always heavy in Puccini, was assumed by two pianos under the lively but caring direction of Patrick J. Summers. At times one missed the cushioning effect, for example at Butterfly's entrance and the love duet that concludes Act 1, not to mention the instrumental color. But in the main the effect was to lend added point to the writing, a la Debussy's "En blanc et noir," and further clarify the rhythms.
It also accorded well with the spareness of the staging, which suggested the setting with a rock here, a tree (or a Buddha) there and, behind Cio-Cio-San's house, a large-screen Japanese print, equally simple but effective. Moreover, I have seen less substantial houses in supposedly major productions.
I have also heard worse Butterflys, and here I refer to the heroine herself. As with most of these young singers, the name Katherine Harris is new to me but on this occasion she turned in an absolutely first-rate Cio-Cio-San. Not that she came much closer than most sopranos to suggesting the 15-year-old geisha of Act 1. But she did communicate the character's innocence and vulnerability, whether offering her heart to Pinkerton or subsequently her life to preserve her honor, all in singing of rare purity and evenness of production.
Otherwise the standout was probably the Yamadori of John M. Koch - a minor role, but so well limned in its doddery pomposity and so strongly vocalized that I wish we could have seen him as Sharpless, a role I expect he takes at other times.
Instead as the latter we had bass-baritone Kristopher Irmiter, solid enough vocally but at something of a loss at knowing what to do with himself, especially at those times the American consul must remain a silent but sensitive observer.
As the faithless Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton tenor Craig Estep offered singing of directness but no great vocal allure. However, the notes were all there (regally so in his toast to his homeland) as was his grasp of the character, from his glib negotiation of the marriage contract to his guilty exit in Act 3, when the weight of what he has done finally sinks in on him. Indeed it might be argued that the insincere edge of his singing actually strengthened his characterization, as did the glimpse we got of him impatiently smoking a cigarette outside the house as Butterfly happily prepares the nuptial chamber.
Certainly neither Puccini nor his librettists intended us to sympathize with this character, the outwardly attractive "ugly American" whose legacy can be attested to by any number of Vietnamese war brides. Which is to say the text itself may be dated (especially in the rhyming English translation of Ruth and Thomas Martin) but the situation it presents us with isn't. Clothed in the beauty and poignancy of Puccini's music, I have always found the results unbearably sad - which I suspect would have made the composer happy, given the obvious delight he took in such pathetic heroines. (Just count the number of times Puccini's sopranos die, either by their own hand or that of fate.)
At the same time he did not neglect the other characters, something we were reminded of in James Croom's eager-to-please Goro and Pamela King's gently mature Suzuki. Whether showing Pinkerton the property or miming Butterfly's father's hari-kari, the first was admirably on top of the role's dramatic possibilities, while the second was not only supportive but also convincingly Oriental in manner.
For the rest LeRoy Villanueva made for an imposing Bonze, kung fu-style, with Reveka Mavrovitis an unsympathetic Kate Pinkerton - again, one assumes the effect was intentional.
Can that have been true, however, of some of the more obvious anachronisms? For against such appropriate directorial touches as having Pinkerton pick up his son's toy ship - happily in period - as Suzuki explains how Butterfly has watched the harbor every day for his return, we had Sharpless' suit, clearly from a later era, as well as a camera that no one, not even the Japanese, were turning out prior to World War II. After which I doubt even someone as blind as Pinkerton would think of Nagesaki as a remote paradise.