Madame Butterfly, Santa Fe

Written by:
Michael Wade Simpson
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Madame Butterfly

By Giacomo Puccini
Santa Fe Opera
Conductor Anthony Walker
Director Lee Blakeley

Photo: Ken Howard

“Spinto” Sopranos are those special singers who have the ability to hit all the high notes with the lightness and delicacy of a lyric voice, but possess, as well, the lungs (and throat) to push things when necessary, for dramatic purposes. Cio Cio San, in Madame Butterly, is one of those parts, and while the hefty divas of the past, Tebaldi, Scotto and Freni, could never play a 15-year-old realistically, they could break your heart with their singing—make you feel a little bit of your own life was ending during the final, tragic moments of the opera. Their arias are all worth catching on YouTube.

These days, in the era of close-ups on live broadcasts from the Met, with skinny things seizing the spotlight, beauty, acting and realism are carrying more and more importance. Soon they’ll be hiring models to lip sync. Kelly Kaduce, the young woman taking on the Cio Cio San role for Santa Fe, can be forgiven for falling into the “baby Butterfly” category, because her acting is solid, and Pinkerton can actually carry her toward their wedding tatami. Her voice is clear and she uses phrasing and dramatic interpretation instead of “spinto”, possibly a wise career move. I didn’t see anyone in the audience crying, but then, the torrential downpour that punctuated the finale on opening night in Santa Fe (where the theatre is partially open-air) caused those on the entire left side of the house to dash for the exits. Onstage, Kaduce let the whipped up elements settle  her determination to die. Spring was definitely over.

While Kaduce brought out the girlish blind side of an infatuated geisha, Suzuki, her faithful servant (wonderfully sung by Elizabeth DeShong) stood her ground when she was given the opportunity to tell her mistress the ways of Western men. Pinkerton’s early arias also foreshadow the temporary nature of this love affair. Brandon Jovanovich, who sings the part fully, but without much in the way of shading, dramatic or musical, is not a hero who understands how to be a villain at the same time. Better to play into Cio Cio San and the audience’s delusions, it’s easier, and so American.
The stage in Santa Fe, open as it is to the elements, creates scenic challenges, not the least of which is a need for darkness (the curtain is held until 9pm to allow the sun to set mid-summer) and unpredictabilities of wind, heat, and, on opening night, rain. Still, the whirlwind of petals thrashing around the rather threadbare house on its revolving platform added just the right amount of desperation to the second act, planned or not, while the golden moon, hovering over the first part, was as giant as the heroine’s hopes.

This was not a production where every attempt was made to Japonify cast members to the point of circus. There was an African-American mother for Cio-Cio San (Brandy Lynn Hawkins) and costuming by Brigitte Reiffenstuel, especially for Goro, the wedding broker (wonderfully acted and sung by Keith Jameson) and Cio-Cio San exaggerated the desire for the characters to take-on all things American. It was like sherpas wearing Yankees caps.

Lee Blakeley, the director, offered a few masterful touches to the familiar proceedings. Cio Cio San sits for a very long last night of life, and the director’s decision to have her sit in meditation, as the house circles and the orchestra plays, seemed exactly right. The final image, as well, with the little boy holding his mother’s bloody knife, was both provocative and appropriate. May his father never forget.

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