By Giacomo Puccini. A Vancouver Opera production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday, March 5. Continues until March 13
A remarkable thing happened during the unusually loud, extended standing O at Madama Butterfly on opening night. The Vancouver audience was so taken with the title character that it not only leaped to its feet to cheer soprano Mihoko Kinoshita, but also booed the dastardly Lt. Pinkerton who destroyed her.
Fortunately, good-humoured American tenor Richard Troxell didn't take it personally, mouthing "I'm sorry!" and earning big laughs from a crowd that had only moments before the curtain call been yanking out the Kleenex for the devastating final scene.
Kinoshita simply owns the role, finding even more depth in the wronged geisha girl than she did in a highly stylized version of the opera here six years ago. It is a taxing marathon for the singer. Endowed with a particularly lustrous soprano, she never rushes it, eking every last emotion out of each word, powerfully present for every note.
At times she is delicate and restrained, matched beautifully by Allyson McHardy's Suzuki (and the admirably light touch of the orchestra) in "Tutti i fior". She finds new shades of hope and barely disguised anguish in the famous "Un bel dí". And you simply can't prepare for the heart-wrenching finale, her goodbye to her small son (scene-stealer Clara Griesdale) and a death scene abetted by ghostly ancestral forces.
The characters all come through in this production, directed by Michael Cavanagh, perhaps because it is staged so classically. Production designer Patrick Clark sets it on a stark traditional Japanese house framed by multiple shoji screens that open and close in on the action. Visual interest comes from a real-looking cherry-blossom tree out the back, and the pink petals that float magically through the air and form a gorgeous fluffy pastel carpet in the second half.
This production emphasizes the spiritual, historical, and cultural divisions of its main players, and baritone Gregory Dahl, as the American consul Sharpless, does strong work (acting- and singing-wise) as the empathetic go-between who foresees the disaster the impulsive Pinkerton will create when he decides to take a temporary bride in late-19th-century Nagasaki. The role reversal in this Madama Butterfly is striking, with Pinkerton the weak and immature one, and Cio-Cio-San, often stereotyped as a shy, helpless 15-year-old, the centre of power here.
The orchestra, under Leslie Dala, supports all this by finding the full range of Puccini's dynamics, from whispering strings to the pounding horns of doom. The chorus, too, deserves praise, especially for the fury of the wedding guests renouncing Cio-Cio-San and for the difficult-to-execute "humming" scene, turning Butterfly's all-night wait for Pinkerton into a mesmerizing, moonlit dream.
The entire show serves as a reminder of why Butterfly, despite its infamously disastrous debut at La Scala in 1904, remains one of the most popular operas of all time; that, when it is sung with passion and commitment, it can still move audience members who have seen it countless times. Note that Kinoshita is alternating the role with Korean soprano Jee Hye Han, while Troxell switches it up with Adam Luther as Pinkerton. Whether they'll elicit the same cheers and appreciative boos remains to be seen. Better bring the Kleenex just in case.