Attending a performance at the Amarillo Opera is always an experience. Under the visionary leadership of David O'Dell, it has blossomed into one of the most noticed of the regional companies. Many singers with big careers, as well as those still at the starting line, have it on their resumes. In addition, the company has received the Success Award from Opera America for its internationally acclaimed Education/Outreach programs. The State of Texas Senate and House, Texas Commission also has offered praise, as well as Texas Parent Teacher Associations, the NAACP, and several other statewide organizations. In 2004, Opera America selected Amarillo Opera to be one of the first companies to receive their prestigious Opera Fund grant.
So it was no surprise that the scrappy company decided to celebrate its 25th anniversary season by bringing the sets and costumes from a production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly from the world-famous Santa Fe Opera to the Globe-News Center for the Performing Arts. "The set fit on the stage," said O'Dell during intermission, "but there wasn't an inch to spare."
The minimal set, by Jean-Marc Puissant, spread across the back of the stage, combines with the shape of the theater to give you the feeling that you are peering at it through one end of a gigantic wooden Faberge egg. A large setting sun dominates the lower corner and its black outline creates the sensation of a drawing rather than anything real. The little house, that Pinkerton leases (complete with wife and staff) is just a bare frame with a few sliding panels. A few tree branches complete the picture—a Japanese watercolor writ large.
The addition of an ugly power line in the second act tells many stories all at once. First, it speaks to the passage of time from Act 1 while it also shows the industrialization that contact with the west has brought to what was a middle ages style feudal society.
Costumes by Brigitte Reiffenstuel are standard for realistic productions of Butterfly, but with a few touches of whimsy. For example, Prince Yamadori, who usually appears in full Japanese splendor, is in a British explorer outfit. Reiffenstuel also gets a gold star for dressing Butterfly in western garb for the second act. She clearly states that she is an American and that her abode is an American household. Dressing her in traditional Japanese garb for this act is an error that is made far too often.
Director Marc Astafan also sticks close to the traditional but still adds interesting touches that enlighten us to the characters but never feel inserted. He prefers clumps of static people in the crowd scenes, grouping them in circles or lines to create visuals that are tableaux vivants—reproductions of the same watercolors that the set implies.
In the end, Butterfly lives and dies with who sings the leading role. Of course, it is an impossible role to cast since the libretto has her tell her future husband that she is only 15 years old. Saundra DeAthos comes reasonably close visually, in that she is petite in stature and young enough in real life to be more believable in the role than many other sopranos who are singing it today.
Vocally, she is stunning. She meets the extravagant demands that Puccini makes on his hero without any strain whatsoever. She has a full-throated lyric-verging-on-verismo soprano and can still float a gorgeous pianissimo note at the top of her range. Regrettably, she is not as successful as an actor, only coming into her own in the last act. There was nothing girlish about her in act one, which was too bad because it would have helped the illusion that she was only 15. She was better in act two but still only showed a limited range. In the final scene, she ate the scenery and left the audience in tears.
The best actor on the stage was Mark Womack as Sharpless, the U.S. Consul at Nagasaki. You believed him every second he was on the stage. He was especially effective at the end when he lost his temper with the fleckless Pinkerton. His effortless baritone just added to the total effect.
Pinkerton is not a big role. He is on stage for the first act and then appears briefly at the end to wring his hands at the ruined lives and grief his thoughtless actions have visited on poor Butterfly and her loyal servant, Suzuki, not to mention the two-year-old son he fathered (portrayed by the quite-a-bit-older Atticus McBride). As Pinkerton, Harold Meers has a fine tenor voice that is a good fit for the role. His is not quite the Italian sound that you would need for later Puccini (like Turendot) but Pinkerton is frequently sung by lighter voices. He is still young (for a tenor) and may still grow into the heavier roles, but his clear voice and secure top were just perfect for Pinkerton.
Sarah Heltzel was moving as the loyal Suzuki. She has a rich mezzo that offered a perfect contrast to the lyric soprano of DeAthos' Butterfly. The flower duet would have been a highlight if it had gone faster and not slowed down to a crawl.
This brings us to the disappointing part of the production—the conductor and the orchestra. Michael Ching conducted a sluggish performance that consistently lagged behind the stage. The orchestra was simply too loud from start to finish, which only made its inadequacies more evident. Ching could have been much more of a help if he had kept the performance moving and a lid on the volume coming from the pit.
There were cringe-worthy intonation, missed entrances and ensemble problems throughout. Most unforgivably, the performance actually fell apart in the beginning of act two. Admittedly, it is true that this is a very difficult score for even the finest opera houses to play. Further, Amarillo was playing a greatly reduced version of the original large orchestration, which made every player much more exposed that would normally be the case. Still, more energetic tempi and some shushing on the part of the conductor would have gone a long way to help.
The shortcomings of the orchestra aside, Amarillo should be very proud of putting a fine performance of Butterfly on the stage. It was well sung and beautiful to behold. Butterfly was the first opera staged by the company in 1988. The founder of the company (and the star of that first Butterfly), Mila Gibson, was in the audience. O'Dell introduced her from the stage before the show started and a grateful Amarillo gave her a well-deserved, warm and appreciative ovation.