Monday, September 24, 2012

Taking Flight: Minnesota Opera's "Madame Butterfly" serves as a strong launching pad for new Music Director Michael Christie

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San in the Minnesota Opera production of Madame Butterfly.
Image credit: Michal Daniel/Minnesota Opera
New Minnesota Opera Music Director Michael Christie had his pre-debut last weekend at the opening of Madame Butterfly. And while it doesn’t reach the heights of his delicious interpretation of La Traviatta, it is a solid show and a great launching pad for his future as music director.
For those unfamiliar withMadame Butterfly, arguably Puccini’s most famous piece, it is essentially Rogers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific. Set in 1905, shortly after Japan was ‘opened’ to the West, the story is about a young geisha who is sold as a bride to an American sailor, Lt. B.F. Pinkerton.
The young woman, the Butterfly, pours herself into the marriage, oblivious to the fact that Pinkerton is a scoundrel. Not long after their wedding, Pinkerton travels back to America to find an American wife, leaving Butterfly pregnant and yearning for his return. Pinkerton never tells her of his intentions to marry another woman, saying only that he will return when the cherry trees blossom.
Pinkerton does return a cool three years later – and brings his new wife along for the trip. Having had blind faith in him all along, Pinkerton’s betrayal destroys Butterfly, and she commits suicide as Pinkerton’s new wife takes her son away.
Kelly Kaduce sharply portrays Butterfly, fluttering about the stage and in her vocals. It would have been nice to see a bit more insanity in her Butterfly by the end of the show, but all in all Kaduce gave a solid performance.
Arturo Chacon-Cruz was equally accurate as Lt. Pinkerton, with a solid tenor and naval impishness. Again, it would have been nice to see him stretch a bit more emotional range into his character, but Cruz and Kaduce were a well matched pair.
The show’s vocal standout is surely Levi Hernandez, playing U.S. Consul Sharpless. Hernandez’s lusciously velvety baritone gave an essential richness to many of the arias, and I only wish he had more time on stage.
The Opera’s orchestra was at its best for this show, giving a cohesive, sturdy foundation on which the vocalists could build. The rest of the cast held well with the principals.
Please note that this Butterfly has two sets of principals, and as such this review holds true for only half of the performances in this run. Anyone attending performances on April 19, 20 or 22 will hear different performers.
I heard fellow audience members give the spare, Kabuki influenced set mixed reviews. But I personally found set designer Neil Patel’s adept use of creamy shoji screens, vibrant flower petals and earthy palette lovely and economical. David Woolard’s costuming, mainly featuring garishly bright kimonos, didn’t fare quite as well. Butterfly’s gorgeous winged bridal gown is a notable exception.
Madame Butterfly is a familiar way for the Minnesota Opera end their season. Although not the highlight of the 2011-2012 season, it is a well-produced show and one likely to please Puccini fans. Others can look forward to September, when the new Opera season opens withNabucco.
+ Madame Butterfly continues at the Ordway Theater in St. Paul on April 19, 20 and 22. For more information visit