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In Review > North America

Madama Butterfly

DENVER
Opera Colorado
11/21/14

As the 2014-15 season kicked off in Denver's Ellie Caulkins Opera House, the spacious theater was all but filled for Opera Colorado’s four performances of Madama Butterfly (seen Nov. 21). Audiences were no doubt attracted by the work's familiarity and by press reports of a traditional, non-threatening staging. It's hard to blame local opera-goers for feeling skittish about investing in a struggling organization, just as it's hard to fault them for flocking to yet another pretty, period-costume, bring-on-the-adorable-kid production of Puccini's beloved tragedy. All but absent were any unusual or daring touches from dancer-choregrapher-turned-director Keturah Stickann. She made fine use of the attractive set, borrowed from Virginia Opera, and managed to lure occasionally sympathetic performances from her cast. There was only one interesting directorial insertion, a semi-successful dream sequence during the Intermezzo, in which Cio-Cio San left her motionless vigil and walked into an imagined reunion with Pinkerton. This was a nice idea, but was half-heartedly staged. 

Later, the director rose to the occasion in a finale of touching simplicity. The entrance of Kate Pinkerton (Katherine Sanford) found Cio-Cio San standing motionless, confused and disbelieving — while those around her silently grappled with what was transpiring. Stickann's blocking nimbly isolated each character with his or her thoughts, allowing the heart-breaking scene to rise above familiarity and cliché. A similar understatement enhanced the start of Act I's love duet, with Cio-Cio San sweetly resting her head in the lap of her new husband and pleading, “Vogliatemi bene.” That moment signaled a welcome deepening of the story's emotional weight, as it offered relief from the stiff, cumbersome action that preceded it. A director's striving for subtlety demands a strong commitment from a cast of singing actors, and here, the results were fitfully inconsistent, both vocally and dramatically. Most disappointing was the first-act performance of Dinyar Vania as Pinkerton. The Syracuse-born tenor projected precious little depth or motivation, emerging as neither likable nor unlikable (this, despite the audience's playful booing of his character at curtain calls). His Pinkerton seemed oddly uninterested in the impending marriage, then fell short in revealing softened feelings for his bride. Vania's tenor could not overcome his dramatic shortcomings, straying off pitch, becoming pinched at the top and opening up only in the occasional ringing forte, though managing to gain confidence with a relaxed mid-range. Seeming to come from the vapid, plant-your-feet-and-sing school, his performance failed to generate chemistry with his cast or his audience.

Xiu Ying Li has enjoyed much success singing Butterfly, appearing in numerous productions — most visibly, New York City Opera's 2010 staging, which was nationally televised on Live from Lincoln Center. It came as a surprise that her “Un bel di” was flat, vocally and dramatically, eliciting only polite applause at its conclusion. Elsewhere, her singing was more secure, gaining strength and focus as the evening continued. Stickann skillfully engineered the grim finale so that the focus was solely on Butterfly. There was no blindfolding of her son (the role shamefully uncredited in the program book, though the handsome boy all but stole the show). In an appreciated decision, the director placed young Sorrow offstage during the suicide. In those final moments, Li's soprano soared exquisitely. Key supporting roles were handled expertly by the creamy-voiced Sharpless of John Hancock and the sympathetically drawn Suzuki of Erica Brookhyser, who sang with power and precision, particularly in her flower duet with Li. Serviceable contributions came from Anthony Webb (Goro), Leo Rado (The Bonze) and Jared Guest (Prince Yamadori). Lighting designer Lucas Krech brought a lovely array of ever-changing colors to the painted backdrop, adding a stark urgency to pivotal moments with bright white spotlights, bathing Cio-Cio San's house in red as she delivered her death blow. Andres Cladera's chorus sang and hummed with authority, while Ari Pelto proved an attentive conductor in the pit, only now and then rushing his tempos past the singers. spacer 

MARC SHULGOLD

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