Rogue Opera, led by Maestro Martin Majkut and stage director Igor Vieira, delivers a "Madame Butterfly" that is professionally complete in every way — musically, dramatically, and with an elegant, tasteful set.
Giacomo Puccini's iconic masterpiece opened Sunday in Grants Pass and will continue this weekend in Medford.
Though "Butterfly" premiered in 1904, this tale of love and heartbreak evokes a contemporary, timeless resonance. Set in Nagasaki, Japan, at the beginning of the 1900s, it tells the tragic story of a teenage Japanese geisha, Cio-Cio-San, who marries an American naval lieutenant. Puccini's brilliant score unites the orchestral motifs and vocal expression to convey Cio-Cio-San's path through innocent love to delusion and the final pathos of betrayal. Puccini weaves one beautiful melody after another intermixed with Japanese folk songs. More than one person was humming the melodies on the way out of the auditorium Sunday.
This was the period of rising American "gunboat diplomacy" in which the United States and other European powers engaged in increasing colonialist ambitions in Asia. Japan joined them as it pushed industrial development and modernization and courted the United States in this endeavor. Lt. Pinkerton's opening aria is a reflection of what later became known as the "ugly American." Pinkerton is blithely unaware of his hypocrisy as he sings about the "Yankee Vagabondo," who "takes possession of the fairest flowers of every place." The ruggedly handsome tenor, Jon Farmer, effortlessly assumes the role, his virile tenor conveying the unconscious arrogance of Pinkerton.
The role of Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly) is one of the most difficult in opera. The heroine's changing moods, emotions and a nearly constant stage presence requires exceptional stamina, acting and vocal proficiency. The additional necessity of convincingly portraying a teenager makes it difficult to find someone young enough but whose voice is developed enough. German soprano Christina Kowalski is just such a singer. Her acting and expressive singing convey the essence of a 15-year-old girl throughout the opera. Occasionally, however, the combined acoustics of stage and the excessively shallow orchestra pit conspired to favor the orchestra over the singer, compelling the soprano to strain her upper tessitura.
The soprano's own 4-year-old son plays a very touching, nonspeaking role as Butterfly's son, Dolore.
Mezzo-soprano Hannah Penn's rich, expressive vocalism delivered an exceptional Suzuki, Butterfly's maid. The beautiful, poignant duet between Butterfly and Suzuki in Act 2 is one of the most moving arias in all of opera. Kudos also to baritone Barry Johnson as Sharpless, the frustrated American consul, whose untiring efforts and sympathy to convey reality to both Butterfly and Pinkerton pull the audience itself into palpable, empathetic worry.
Galen Schloming is splendidly appropriate as the fussy, energetic Goro, the marriage broker. He provides some comic relief against a background in which Japan made Japanese women available to Americans. American men were awarded the same repressive marriage rights as Japanese men, in which the women were bound permanently by a marriage contract but the man could terminate it at will.
Last but not least, bravissima, choral mistress Laurie Anne Hunter, and bravissimi, chorus members, for their superb ensemble work. The chorus, consisting mainly of Southern Oregon students, had some of the most beautiful music in the opera and sang it with perfect intonation and beautiful tone.
The Rogue Valley is fortunate to have such a proficient ensemble, under the direction of producer Noel Koran and music director Majkut, both of international experience and reputation. Live opera is a special experience that cannot be fully duplicated in recordings. The excellent super-titles with English translations are standard for all Rogue Opera performances.
"Madame Butterfly" continues at 8 p.m. Friday, May 3, and 3 p.m. Sunday, May 5, at the Craterian Theater, 23 S. Central Ave. Tickets are $22, $35 and $47, with discounts for seniors and youths. Visit www.craterian.org or call the box office at 541-779-3000.
Don Morris is a freelance writer living in Ashland.