This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: May 29, 2008 - In its 33 seasons of life, Opera Theatre of St. Louis has grown into a company of international renown, but equally as important, it has brought to hometown audiences productions of extraordinary quality. “Madame Butterfly” has made regular appearances. The first production was in Forest Park at the Muny, and Butterfly under the stars and the gigantic fans was a night to remember. Subsequent productions, many of them equally memorable, were mounted in 1984, 1992 and 1997.
Why another Butterfly? Because despite arguments that it is sentimental or dated or both, this opera occupies an esteemed position not only in the operatic repertory but in the history of Western art and civilization. It deserves to be produced. In any time of trouble -- and when is there not such a time? -- bringing Butterfly to the stage is almost an obligation.
Like any work of art that rises to the rank of the estimable, Butterfly presents itself to us as considerably more than the sum of its various elements.
Giacomo Puccini’s music in Butterfly is transporting -- or should be if performed to the exacting standards it deserves. And woven like a scarlet thread into the golden tapestry of the score is a moral lesson that transcends time and culture. It is not a complex lesson; it is the ethics of reciprocity, the Golden Rule.
When this lesson is served up in an atmosphere of appropriate gravitas -- be it a place of worship or shrine or the museum or opera house or concert hall, the presentation should be compelling and its production values attended to rigorously.
In the case of “Madame Butterfly,” an opera that presents a reprehensible breach in the ethics of reciprocity, the production must be distinguished by a scrupulous authenticity, not so much of style but of spirit.
Furthermore, an audience that gathers to hear it deserves to see and to hear it performed with conviction. Opera Theatre -- so regularly on the mark -- misses it in this production. I left the show unsettled, not believing, or really caring, what had happened to anyone in the show, except for two characters who occupy secondary places in the hierarchy of the cast.
Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, who purchases a Japanese wife, Cio Cio San (Madame Butterfly), is a jerk. Tenor David Pomeroy played him as such, and got a good-natured booing at the curtain call for his work. But he was not fully developed malefactor. This Pinkerton was a star athlete in high school who gets the cheerleader pregnant, and his father, who owns the town’s major industry, makes it all go away.
Similarly, Kelly Kaduce’s Butterfly is frenetic and pathetic but she rarely achieved an emotional connection with other members of the cast -- and certainly not with the audience, whose compassion should be engendered by a Butterfly of genuine dignity, fragility and mettle.
The show was rescued, however, by the devotion and affecting goodwill of Cio Cio San’s servant, Suzuki (Jamie Barton) and the compelling rectitude of the American consul in Nagasaki, Sharpless (Lester Lynch).
Sharpless, at the top of the show, presents Pinkerton with the possibility of operating within the bounds of the ethics of reciprocity.
Although Sharpless fails to convince Pinkerton, and suffers for his failure (he suffers for his failure far more than Pinkerton, in fact) he stands at the finale as a noble man in Lynch’s interpretation of the role. The modulated thunder of Lynch’s voice is enormously persuasive, but along with such vocal magnificence is an eloquence of emotion that is experienced viscerally.
Genuine achievements came in Act II, particularly in the trio sung by Pinkerton (who has begun to accept his violation of Butterfly and his transgression of what should be an intuitively understood morality) and the two genuine victims in this production -- the emotionally spent Suzuki and the confounded, defeated Sharpless.
The 2008 Butterfly was performed on a set that, stripped bare, was a place of grace, elegance and visual potential. Once fitted out with the various props and furnishings and gimcrackery, it was something of a hodgepodge. The costumes fell short of the standards one has come to expect from this company. When the choristers arrived on stage in Act I and again at curtain call time, it was as if the train had pulled in from Titipu.
All this, jumbled in with misrepresentations of the very difficult and stylized movements and gestures of Kabuki, offered occasions of caricature. And that – along with a deficiency of conviction – just may be this Butterfly’s problem.
Madame ButterflyAn opera in 2 acts
Music by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica after the story by John Luther Long and the play by David Belasco. English translation by Margaret B. Stearns and the late Colin Graham.
The opera was first performed in 1904 at La Scala in Milan and received one performance. It was revived in a new version, used here, at Brecia later that same year. This production, conceived by Mr. Graham, was performed first in St. Louis in 1997.
Conductor: Timothy Long
Stage Director: Reed Fisher
Set Designer: Neil Patel
Costume Designer: David Woolard
Lighting Designer: Rob Denton
Cast of Characters:
Cio Cio San: Kelly Kaduce
Lt. B. F. Pinkerton: David Pomeroy
Sharpless: Lester Lynch
Suzuki: Jamie Barton
Goro: Daniel Fosha
Bonze: David Cushing
Yamadori: Elliot Madore
Kate Pinkerton: Lindsay Ammann
For more information on “Madame Butterfly” and the other three operas in the company’s 2008 festival season, go to www.opera-stl.org.