San Diego Opera's main stage offering proved that even a warhorse can remain thoroughly enchanting when a production looks and sounds as beautiful as this company’s Madama Butterfly. Sets by and costumes originally created for Opéra de Montréal, sensitive lighting, plus captivating performances from an outstanding cast that includes both debuting and established SDO artists, combined to make this production into a visual and aural feast.
As beleaguered heroine Cio-Cio San, rising American star Latonia Moore would have carried the show even without support from her first-rate cast members. Last seen here as Aida in 2013, Verdi specialist Moore proved that she was equally capable of nailing a female Puccini protagonist’s role with comparable vocal beauty and dramatic intensity. It is indeed a luxury to hear Puccini’s shimmering lines sung with the vitality that a Verdian soprano is capable of. Add to that a remarkable constellation of dramatic peaks and valleys that intensify as the layers of the character are peeled off to reveal a protagonist whose inner core of strength builds right up to the inevitable dénouement, and you have a portrayal that reveals the complexities of a creature whose ability to captivate her hero (in this case, perhaps an anti-hero) is utterly believable.
Romanian tenor Teodor Ilincăi captured the dark side of Butterfly’s Pinkerton. In his unusual depiction, he emphasized the character’s bravado more than his ultimate regretful angst, thus causing the audience to express their displeasure during his curtain call. The dramatic portrayal was more effective than the vocal one: though the voice was powerful and carried well over the heavy orchestration that is characteristic of Puccini’s 20th-century works, Ilincăi’s overall sound and timbre did not match the loveliness of Moore’s voice.
However, Ilincăi’s performance did mesh beautifully with that of debuting baritone Anthony Clark Evans. Still fulfilling his stint as a participant in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s esteemed Ryan Opera Center, Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions winner Evans showed great promise as a future star of the opera stage. His fine voice projected admirably without sounding forced, and his interpretation of the moral difficulties of Sharpless showed subtlety and a diversity of emotion. One hopes to hear a great deal more from Evans as his career progresses.
American mezzo-soprano J’nai Bridges was a perfect match vocally and dramatically for Moore as Butterfly’s devoted servant and friend Suzuki, and proved herself a strong and valuable performer, both as a support for the protagonist and in her own right. Some of the most satisfying moments in this pivotal role are in the second act flower duet, where the soprano and mezzo combine their voices more closely than in any other scene. When two voices ring together and blend as beautifully as those of Moore and Bridges, the effect is magical.
As always, SDO’s supporting cast contributed much to the performance, most notably in their dramatic portrayals. As Goro, Taiwanese tenor Joseph Hu gave a no-holds-barred rendition of the comic and dramatic elements that make up the character’s varied personality. It is refreshing to see a Goro who embraces physicality in pratfalls as well as slyness of character. Company team players Scott Sikon and Bernardo Bermudez were appealing as Bonze and Yamadori respectively. Diminutive dynamo Richie Luhta stole every scene in which he appeared as Trouble, Butterfly’s child. A natural on stage, he spoke volumes, capturing every possible aspect of this non-speaking role. Yves Abel conducted briskly.
Legendary playwright, director and producer David Belasco, nicknamed “the Bishop of Broadway” due to his signature costume of black waistcoat and white clerical collar, also ruled as king when it came to special effects and lighting in the Broadway theatres, rejecting the ubiquitous footlights to devise the first overhead theatre lighting system. When Belasco created his Madame Butterfly for the Broadway stage, the lighting was all-important, and indeed audiences were left breathless by the sheer beauty of the sunset at the end of the play’s second act.
Belasco would have been gratified with this production of Puccini’s masterpiece from both a design and lighting point of view. Roberto Oswald’s exquisite sets, with their clever use of shojis to move the action from indoors to outdoors, captured the look of a Japanese silkscreen painting and glowed from within by the subtleties of Chris Rynne’s delicately varied lighting. The resulting continuous flow of handsome images was pleasing to the eye. Garnett Bruce’s subtle direction added to the dramatic impact. Aníbal Lápiz’s liberal use of red in the resplendent chorus costumes to contrast with the purity of Butterfly’s innocent nature made a stunning visual effect.
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