Puccini’s Madama Butterfly has endeared itself to audiences for more than a hundred years with its passionate love story and recognizable arias, but even more so with its heartbreaking love story. Few tales grace the stage and combine elements from both Eastern and Western culture as the story of the teenage Cio-Cio San (Madama Butterfly) and her love for the handsome American, Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton. Opera lovers everywhere name these characters as their favorites, so it’s exciting that the North Carolina Opera opened its sixth season with such a well-known production on the stage of Raleigh Memorial Auditorium on Oct. 30th.
The story, set in Nagasaki in 1898, was originally written as an 1898 short story by John Luther Long (1861-1927) and adapted to a three-act opera by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924). Premiered in Milan in 1904, the opera failed to gain an audience in spite of the famed singers who took its lead roles. Puccini went back to the drawing board and rewrote the tale five times before finally succeeding in 1907 with a version currently known as the “standard” (another version, written in 1904, is also still performed).
In this production, the role of Pinkerton, a naval lieutenant who is based in Nagasaki and agrees to an arranged marriage with a young geisha named Cio-Cio-San/Madama Butterfly, is played by Michael Brandenburg. Brandenburg debuted last season with the company in The Flying Dutchman and was chosen in 2013 as one of six grand finalists in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. In his opening scene as Pinkerton Brandenburg appears somewhat insecure; but as the first act progresses, he gets his footing and his strength solidifies his relationship with the younger yet more physically mature Madama Butterfly.
Sharpless (played by Michael Sumuel), the U.S. Counsel who offers Pinkerton advice, has a strong stage presence; and his gorgeous bass-baritone is more seasoned. When he is on stage, he exudes confidence and gravitas. His warnings that the young geisha might view the marriage more seriously than Pinkerton fall on deaf ears; and later in the opera when he returns with a somber message to Butterfly, who is now a young mother, his compassion for her is evident.
The star of the opera is, of course, Butterfly; and the second half of the show belongs to Cio-Cio-San/Butterfly, played by the gorgeous soprano Talise Trevigne. Though it’s difficult to view her as a 15-year-old in the first act (Trevigne’s voice is rich and mature), she embodies the passion and pain of a young wife abandoned by a thoughtless husband in the second and third acts. Her rendition of “Un Bel Di,” the opera’s most famous aria, is impeccable and filled with emotion. She sings of waiting to see the boat on the horizon that will bring her husband back to her with a gentleness and sense of optimism in a manner that fully fleshes out her romantic character.
She is joined by contralto Lindsay Ammann as Suzuki, an effervescent and often humorous maid who tries over and over to tell Butterfly that the young American will never return; but Butterfly doesn’t listen. Though Suzuki appears to be a nag, Ammann’s mannerisms reveal her love for her mistress. She shares Butterfly’s heartbreak, as much as she shares her love for her young son.
The supporting players include Ian McEuen, a tenor with great stage presence, who plays Goro, the marriage broker who continuously works to marry Butterfly to someone more suitable; Wei Wu, who plays Butterfly’s uncle Bonze with a crazy sense of humor; Jesse Malgieri, a baritone whose brief moment on stage as Prince Yamadori does not win Butterfly’s heart; Charles Hyland as the Imperial Commissioner; and Kate Farrar as Pinkerton’s new wife, Kate.
Accompanied by the North Carolina Opera orchestra, conducted by Timothy Myers, this company produced a lovely version of this opera staple.
In January, the opera returns with Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin; and in April, with Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. If this performance is any indication, the opera is alive and well in North Carolina and worthy of purchasing advance tickets for the best seats.
SECOND OPINION: Oct. 31st Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/entertainment/arts-culture/article42068265.html; Oct. 31st Voix des arts review: http://www.voix-des-arts.com/2015/10/performance-review-giacomo-puccini.html; Oct. 31st Raleigh, NC CVNC review by Ken Hoover: http://cvnc.org/article.cfm?articleId=7654; Oct. 30th Raleigh, NC WNCN interview with Timothy Myers, conducted by Valonda Calloway and Alex Butler for “My Carolina Today”: http://wncn.com/2015/10/30/madama-butterfly-at-nc-opera/; and Oct. 18th Wake Forest, NC WCPE interview with Timothy Myers: http://theclassicalstation.org/preview_interviews/2015-10-Timothy-Meyers.html.
The North Carolina Opera presents MADAMA BUTTERFLY, sung in Italian with English supertitles at 3 p.m. Nov. 1 in Raleigh Memorial Auditorium in the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.
TICKETS: $25.43-$93.81, except $15 Student Rush Tickets (sold at the door, starting two hours before curtain).
North Carolina Opera Box Office: 919-792-3853 or http://www.ncopera.org/single-tickets.
Ticketmaster: 800-745-3000 or www.ticketmaster.com/venueartist/115203/1162090. GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-792-3853 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
SHOW: http://www.ncopera.org/performances/madama-butterfly and https://www.facebook.com/events/975797639149458/.
NEWS RELEASE: http://www.ncopera.org/lib/user/files/c15307c.pdf.
PRESENTER: http://www.ncopera.org/, https://www.facebook.com/NorthCarolinaOpera, and https://twitter.com/ncopera.
NOTE: Barbara Norton will present a preshow talk, starting at 2:05 p.m.
Madama Butterfly (1904 opera): http://www.britannica.com/topic/Madama-Butterfly (Encyclopædia Britannica) and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madama_Butterfly (Wikipedia). The Libretto: http://books.google.com/ (Google Books).
Study Guide: http://www.pittsburghopera.org/files/file/Study%20Guide%20for%20Madama%20Butterfly.pdf (Pittsburgh Opera).
Giacomo Puccini (Italian composer, 1858-1924): http://www.pucciniamerica.org/ (American Center for Puccini Studies), http://www.britannica.com/biography/Giacomo-Puccini (Encyclopædia Britannica), and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giacomo_Puccini (Wikipedia).
Dawn Reno Langley is a Durham, NC-based author who writes novels, poetry, children’s books, and nonfiction books on many subjects, as well as theater, music, and dance reviews. She is also a writer, editor, writing coach at Reno’s Literary Services of Durham. To read all of Dawn Langley’s Triangle Review reviews online at Triangle Arts and Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/dawn-reno-langle/. To read more of her writings, click http://dawnrenolangley.blogspot.com/ and http://poetryandgardening.blogspot.com/.