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In Review > North America

Madama Butterfly (5/20/17), Carmen (5/25/17)

NEW YORK CITY
Heartbeat Opera

In Review Heartbeat Opera Butterfly hdl 817
Ban as Heartbeat Opera’s Cio-Cio-San
© Russ Rowland

IN LATE MAY, Heartbeat Opera offered two of opera’s most familiar narratives of (cross-ethnic) love and death in chamber adaptations in Baruch’s subterranean Rose Nagelberg Theatre. Seen May 20, the staging of Butterfly—as Heartbeat’s adaptation of Madama Butterfly,by stage director Ethan Heard and music director Jacob Ashworth, was titled—had a compelling anchor: a contemporary Eurasian boy started the show onstage, apart from the others’ playing area, doing internet searches, such as “Asian–American,” “Yellow Fever” and the like. Puccini’s Act II began, played relatively straight and complete, save that Yamadori was eliminated by having Goro deliver a gift in his name. The doll that the Boy (the terrific Noah Spagnola) carried mirrored the onstage Dolore.

Chinese soprano Banlingyu Ban gave a detailed, affecting dramatic performance. Despite some wayward high notes and a general lack of both spin and long phrases—she was reported as performing despite a week-long cold—her voice showed a nice pearly quality. Siobahn Sung, deeply involved dramatically, lent Suzuki moving, attractive tone. Some wandering pitches aside, Matthew Singer made a solid, mellow-sounding Sharpless: though sensitively done, his performance as directed seemed entirely traditional, as if imported from another staging. Jordan Pitts drew an incisive Goro—a gym-toned, Western-dressed pimp out of Miss Saigon.

It was interesting to hear this music, arranged by Daniel Schlosberg, played without orchestral opulence. The seven-person chamber arrangement, as rendered by Cantata Profana, supplied diaphanous textures that aided verbal clarity, though orchestral climaxes, such as the surge underlying, “Ei torna e m’ama!” went for less. Harpist Nuiko Wadden did commendable work. Conductor Jacob Ashworth kept good balance and handled various percussive duties well—and graciously ceded the baton to Spagnola when he came (seeking further answers) to “rewind” the score to Act I. 

It was clever, in this flashback setting, to have the American sailor interpreted in terms of comically stereotypical poses and gait (while Suzuki and Goro, as the crowd, spoofed the usual “oriental” attitudes). Mackenzie Whitney, the picture of an overconfident dorky-cute Midwesterner as Pinkerton, relished the comic challenges. Vocally, he alternated brilliant high notes with worrisome technical glitches. Major cuts shortened Act I (again, played second)—no “Ieri son salita” (dealing with Cio-Cio-San’s adopting Christianity); no wedding (or officials), no Bonze, so no renunciation by her family and friends; the love duet lost the entire “Rinnegata e felice” section. Thus Heard stressed the choices Cio-Cio-San makes as “a modern Japanese woman” while leaving out of the character’s texture the extraordinarily brave choice she makes as a Japanese woman of any era—to change her religion. Faith—not as trendy a category as race or gender—pretty much got sidelined here, past the heroine’s initial mocking of Suzuki when she invokes the Japanese gods. Cio-Cio-San’s ottoké, here seen but not introduced to Pinkerton, were “Hello Kitty” figurines—a good gag. As the love duet ended, Pinkerton tied Cio-Cio-San (now in porn-suggestive schoolgirl attire) to the cage-like house walls with red ropes and jauntily strolled off elsewhere without consummating the marriage. Pinkerton sported no uniform in Act III; he wore chino pants, polo shirt and sockless moccasins—the Lands’ End traveler abroad. Kate? A blonde mannequin, wheeled in by Goro and out by Sharpless. The contemporary “Boy” entered the central playing area trying to prevent Cio-Cio-San’s suicide. 

This handsome, minimal production, designed by Reid Thompson (set), Valérie Thérèse Bart (costumes) and Oliver Wason (lights), would make a fine touring Butterfly staging (acts played in whatever order); the one aesthetic miscalculation here was a work-light shining uncomfortably (into audience eyes) through a too-thin back scrim.

In Review Heartbeat Opera's Carmen lg 817 
Heartbeat Opera’s Carmen, with Turner and Claverie
© Russ Rowland
 

HEARTBEAT'S CARMEN (seen May 25), directed and adapted by Louisa Proske, was better still, gripping as music theater in its own right, not just as a gloss on a (straw man) “traditional” reading. Proske set out to examine and challenge the all-too-timely oppositions structured around borders of all types. This was an anti-touristic Carmen; Kate Noll’s workaday decor (a dilapidated border-crossing flanked by barbed wire) set exactly the right tone for Proske’s purposes, and apt props were carefully chosen: for example, Carmen’s cell phone and its Bizet-penned ringtones played a key role in the first and final scenes. The roof of the customs shed got clever, extensive use as playing space. Choreographer Chloe Treat made sexy work around the abilities of Mexican leading lady Sishel Claverie and dancer Parker Drown (as a composite smuggler figure); the fights by Rick Sordelet were quite convincing. Dialogue was reasonably well delivered in English; the singing was in French, which mezzo Claverie handled best. She gave a likable, admirably uncompromising performance, with sufficient color and range for the part. Jessica Sandidge’s lyric sound furnished contrast as Micaëla. 

A big, burly, muddled José, Brent Reilly Turner—audibly an ex-baritone—struggled with the passaggio and tended to shout but gave it a good shot, showing potential. Escamillo was meant to be an outlaw, snorting a line between verses of his hit tune; but Ricardo Rivera—displaying a mild, cultivated manner and an even baritone, but not much below decks—seemed better suited to Moralès, cut from this version along with Carmen’s back-up singers. Conductor Daniel Schlosberg’s arrangements for sax, percussion, piano, guitar and one of each of the three principal string instruments were catchy, well wrought and often droll. (Only “En vain pour éviter,” a solo here, got over-sophisticated.) The players were uniformly excellent and spirited, doing a good bit of acting and even some singing.  —David Shengold 



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