Dallas — On Operabase.com, which lists of the most frequently produced operas worldwide (updated yearly), Puccini holds spots 4, 5 and 6 La bohème, Tosca and Madame Butterfly, respectively. All three were written to a libretto crafted by the team of Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. Tosca and Madame Butterfly were based on plays by famed English impresario David Belasco.
Butterfly, which just opened in a magnificent production by The Dallas Opera, has a history starts long before Belasco’s play. First, there was a semi-autobiographical French novel, Madame Chrysanthème, written in 1887 by Pierre Loti. This version ends happily: the lovers part as friends. Then, there was a novella entitled Madame Butterfly, written in 1898, which sets up the plot points used Belasco’s play and promoted to the opera.
Puccini saw Belasco’s play in London, although he didn’t speak English, but he certainly got the drama of the situation: a tale of a geisha “rented” by a visiting American naval officer, who deserts her, and their son, causing her suicide. He saw opera material in the scenario. (The story also inspired the musical Miss Saigon.)
The star of this production is the director, John Copley. The fact that this production seems more realistic is due to his subtle touches that are too many to list here. But, here's one example:
The marriage/real estate broker, Goro (played by tenor David Cangelosi), offers Sharpless, the American Consul, a girl of his own. He displays a brochure with the photos of his “inventory.” So far, so good. However, the Copley touch is that, on his exit, Goro turns around to flash Sharpless that brochure one last time. It is that second flash, not in the score, that clearly defines Goro as a slimy Times Square huckster, but with girls rather than phony Rolex watches. Cangelosi’s portrayal adds an extra dose of crassness to that characterization.
Of course, Copley has a wonderful cast and sensitive conductor in Donato Renzetti, with which to work. He didn’t design the entire production, as is his wont, but he felt that he could work with a rented one from the San Francisco Opera. It is easy to see why. The set is a series of panels, painted like Japanese screens, that open and close to create the inner rooms and outside veranda. Furniture pieces arrive as needed and vanish when their assigned job ends.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Of course, it is impossible to find a 15-year-old girl that can sing this bruiser of a role. The Chinese soprano Hui He may not look like she is 15, but her every motion and facial expression create a youthful girl on the threshold of womanhood. She works this magic with a composite of genuinely Asian mannerisms, youthful gestures and a remarkably nuanced voice. But, the real coup de théâtre is her transformation from innocence to fury and then to absolute despair at the end.
As the clueless naval officer, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, Gianluca Terranova, sports a five–o’clock shadow and a vibrant spinto tenor voice, which he deployed, tutta forza, throughout the opera. He summons some truly sensitive singing when required. We believe him throughout, from his carefree and randy sailor to his guilt-ridden devastation at the end.
The baritone Lucas Meachem plays the understanding American Consul, Sharpless, with a fatherly gentleness and some significant arthritis when sitting and standing up. (More than half of the audience could empathize).
Manuela Custer, mezzo-soprano, turns Butterfly’s maid, Suzuki, into a major role with her steely backboned support, which Butterfly relies on throughout the opera. She demonstrates this as an actor but also as a singer by occasionally using her sturdy chest voice.
Reginald Smith, Jr. elevates the role of Butterfly’s vengeful uncle to prominence when he crashes the wedding to disown Butterfly for converting to Christianity. He is truly frightening when he furiously storms in.
Will Hughes plays one of Butterfly’s new suitors, the very rich Yamadori. He is a prince and Hughes plays him with a regal attitude, yet he eventually summons some sincerity when he begins to realize that Butterfly will never be his.
The other minor role of Pinkerton’s “real” wife, Kate, is elevated to major importance with the graceful performance delivered by Angela Turner Wilson. It is her warm sincerity that finally convinces Butterfly to give Pinkerton his son to take away to become raised as a real American boy.
There are, in fact, two boys playing the role of the of the child, whose name is “Sorrow.” On Friday evening, we saw the curly blond locks of Asher Baltensperger, who is a little too grown up to be believable as a child of two. His alternate is Grayson McFerrin-Hogan.
The orchestra was wonderful, in spite of an overzealous timpani player. All the solo parts were beautifully played. Renzetti conducted with a controlled beat and an innate affinity for Puccini’s music. None of the rubato, with which the score abounds, was glossed over but he didn’t allow the singers to rule the day. After a rushed overture, his tempi settled down and were excellent thereafter.
Overall, this is a Butterfly that is not to be missed, especially if you think that this opera has become old hat. You need to see this very realistic production and will, once again, revel in its gorgeous music and three-hanky ending.