There are at least two ways in which Salt Lake Opera Theatre's "Madama Butterfly" scores over the Western Opera Theatre production Utahns saw last February: (1) This time there is an orchestra to reflect Puccini's intentions, as opposed to two pianos, and (2) the opera is sung in the original Italian - hence "Madama" vs. "Madame" in the title.
Otherwise with that same orchestra needing to be stopped and re-cued at one point, some audible technical chatter and a tiny but flashbulb-popping audience, it was more like sitting in on a dress rehearsal Thursday at Judge Memorial High School than an opening night. (The opera will be repeated there Saturday and again Wednesday in the Temple Square Assembly Hall.)Still, I suspect there is a decent "Butterfly" here somewhere, thanks to vocally attractive leads and a sensitive if not always ideally precise response to the instrumental score.
Soprano Heidi Bloyer may not look the part of the 15-year-old geisha who gives her heart to the faithless Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, nor does she always seem to know what to do with herself onstage. But the character is in the voice, a smallish instrument that is nonetheless used intelligently to communicate everything from Butterfly's innocence on her wedding night, when she tentatively shows Pinkerton the few possessions she has brought with her, to the tragic grandeur of her suicide.
Even when swamped by the orchestra - something conductor Robert Zabriskie might have done more to minimize - her expressivity tells, whether in the tender optimism of "Un bel di," otherwise lushly supported, or her moving farewell to her child. In short, whatever it may not be, her portrayal is lyrical and touching, and that is the essence of Cio-Cio-San.
The essence of Pinkerton, it might be argued, is heedless swagger. As it happens tenor Roger Summerhays creates a more appealing character than that, the facile charm of Act 1 giving way to genuine remorse as he is finally overwhelmed by the consequences of his actions. (Fittingly in this production Butterfly dies in his arms.) And although the top proves variably impressive, the voice itself took on an added glow once the overenthusiastic amplification of the early scenes was sensibly toned down.
Beryl Smiley's tremulous Suzuki likewise did not really come into her own until the last act of the opera. Robert Van Wagenen's Sharpless, on the other hand, looks and sounds right from the first, a compassionate view of the U.S. consul that reaches its peak in the letter duet, where his mingled helplessness and concern register strongly.
Smaller roles range from the sympathetic Kate Pinkerton of Kathleen Mickelsen to a vocally inadequate Yamadori (stage director Reed Coombs), with Terry Summerhays' quick-change act as both the Imperial Commissioner and the Bonze falling somewhere in between. For his part David Peck does little to enliven the character of Goro.
Overall, however, the spirit is willing, something again reflected in the pit. At times Zabriskie's direction might be more incisive - for example, the opening - but for the most part his expansive view of the score comes to terms nicely with its pathos and color. Insecure rhythms and string intonation do not always help, though, and one listens in vain for the barely suppressed excitement of the flower duet, when Butterfly and Suzuki prepare to welcome Pinkerton. (A few more flowers would not have been amiss either.)
Otherwise sets are attractive, if necessarily ecomonical. And the same might be said of the costumes, especially the colorful kimonos of Butterfly's retinue (apart from which almost no one really looks Japanese). Only time will tell if this is enough to lure local opera aficionados away from Utah Opera's concurrent "Fledermaus," a classic case of poor scheduling. If not - well, I expect it wouldn't be the first time a butterfly has been downed by a bat.