Story: B.F. Pinkerton, a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy stationed in Japan in the early 20th century, leases a house in Nagasaki from a marriage broker named Goro. Through Goro he also enters into a marital agreement, which can be renewed monthly, with a 15-year-old geisha girl, Cio-Cio-San (“Butterfly”). Sharpless, the American counsul, advises Pinkerton that Cio-Cio-San may take the arrangement more seriously than Pinkerton, who considers Cio-Cio-San merely a dalliance until he marries a “real” American wife.
Cio-Cio-San informs Pinkerton that she became a geisha to support her family after they came upon hard times. When she adopts his Christian religion, she is outcast from her family by The Bonze, a Buddhist monk who is also her uncle. After Pinkerton departs Nagasaki, Cio-Cio-San lives in lonely exile for three years, awaiting his return.
Sharpless visits Madama Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San) to tell her that Pinkerton might not come back, but Cio-Cio-San clings to her hopes, informing Sharpless that Pinkerton fathered a son who now lives with Cio-Cio-San and her servant Suzuki.
One day, seeing Pinkerton’s ship arrive in the harbor, Madama Butterfly instructs Suzuki to prepare the house for his imminent return. When Pinkerton arrives with his American wife, Kate, Cio-Cio San despairs at the reality and considers the limited options available to her.
Highlights: One of the world’s most enduring operas returns to Union Avenue Opera for the first time in a decade in a polished presentation that features several outstanding voices under Jon Truitt’s diligent direction. Ann Hoyt Wazelle’s soaring soprano captures the notes as well as the anguish of the title character’s famous arias, surrounded by a strong supporting cast that immerses itself in Giacomo Puccini’s classic score. The libretto written by Luigi and Giuseppe Giacosa is sung in its original Italian in UAO’s production, with English supertitles.
Other Info: The opening-night audience voiced its overwhelming approval of the rendition, but I rarely felt engaged by it. While the singing was superb and acting was quite convincing, somehow this presentation failed to ignite a spark in an obvious minority. Performance of the music, however, by conductor Scott Schoonover and the orchestra is affectingly beautiful.
Wazelle benefited from some fine wig and makeup design to help convince the audience she was a 15-year-old geisha, and the entire cast looked perfect for the place and the era thanks to Teresa Doggett’s well-thought costume design. That attire blended smoothly with a clever set conceived by Patrick Huber that features some translucent panels he lit expertly for key dramatic scenes, with the accompaniment of props judiciously selected by Lauren Garvey.
Mathew Edwardsen displays a strong tenor and convincing acting in the role of the hedonistic Pinkerton. Baritone Robert Garner is a vibrant presence as the troubled counsul Sharpless, who sees tragedy unfurling before him when Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San take different views of their arrangement. Debra Hillabrand shines as the dutiful servant Suzuki, while Marc Shapman brings an appropriately sleazy demeanor to the opportunistic Goro.
Also contributing effectively are David Dillard as Cio-Cio-San’s stern uncle, The Bonze, and Anthony Heinemann as the wealthy but unappealing Prince Yamadori, a multi-married royalty who desires Cio-Cio-San as his next wife but is spurned by her. Emma Sorensen has a brief role as Pinkerton’s well-meaning wife, Kate, and young Vincent Perez delights as Cio-Cio-San’s son, Dolore (“Sorrow”), although there’s no way he can be expected to resemble a child not yet 3 years old.
Madama Butterfly is one of the world’s most beloved operas, and devotees of its story and score doubtless will be pleased with Union Avenue Opera’s dutiful representation.
Opera: Madama Butterfly
Company: Union Avenue Opera
Venue: Union Avenue Christian Church, 733 Union Blvd.
Dates: July 19, 20
Tickets: $30-$52; student rush tickets available for $15 cash only at the door with valid student ID. Contact 361-2881 or unionavenueopera.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Ron Lindsey