Thursday, August 9, 2012

A Majestic Butterfly at PORTopera

The final performance of PORTopera's production of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" was, about as good it gets. Once again, Artistic Director, Dona D. Vaughn took the familiar and, without jarring anyone’s sensibilities, presented a tale as fresh as the day Puccini wrote it . . . well, re-wrote it.

While the overall feel of Attilio Colonello’s set was traditional, it was, in fact, anything but. Incorporating inventive use of space, the stage defined Casa Pinkerton and its surroundings with multiple levels, steps and bridges, allowing the story to unfold seamlessly. Three enormous screens at the rear rose and descended to dramatic effect, most notably in the great love duet, thereby separating Butterfly and Pinkerton from the rest of the world and intensifying emotions to a level best described as fever pitch. As the newlyweds sang, twinkling stars descended slowly over them, creating an effect which, paired with Puccini’s score, was both dazzling and breathtaking. As the curtain fell and house lights rose, I witnessed much dabbing of eyes and plenty of heavy sighing. This was only Act 1!

I remain convinced Ms. Vaughn moves crowds on stage better than anyone in the business. In an elegantly choreographed succession of arrangements, the friends, sailors, Consul, wedding party and family members populating Act I filled the stage with color and accented details often only skimmed over in most productions. It was a particularly interesting touch having uniformed shipmates of Pinkerton in attendance at the wedding, pointing up the clash of two cultures even further.

John McVeigh made a meal our of marriage broker, Goro, offering far more elegant singing than one usually encounters in this critical character role. Present throughout much of the opera, Goro, like Cio Cio San, represented an outsider, and ever circling the proceedings before him, lent an almost macabre air of foreboding throughout.

Inna Los (who, this coming season will cover the roles of Marguerite and Desdemona at the Metropolitan Opera) was, in every regard, a most splendid Butterfly. An impressive range of color throughout allowed the soprano to switch effortlessly (or seemingly so) from appropriate childlike sounds which blossomed and swelled into a rich fullness providing Puccini’s heroine her true due. Un bel di was the hit one always hopes it will be, the audience cheering by its end. In Che, tua madre, Los conjured an image of her character’s fate, allowing us to visualize Butterfly singing and begging in the streets for the survival of her child, her final sung "morte!" going straight to the heart. Her final scene was nearly unbearable to watch, a portrait of tragic yet noble defeat.

Ever elegant (a cross between Isabella Rossellini and Renata Scotto), Los performed in a type of stylized perpetual motion, arms moving in gently sweeping gestures almost as though a dancer were performing the role. This movement created both great contrast and powerful theatre as during her all-night vigil, Butterfly stood, motionless waiting for her husband’s return. This, one of the most striking moments in an evening filled with them.

Tenor Adam Diegel provided bright, sunny Italian sound, the voice pouring out fluently, his top brilliant with a timbre that allowed it to ride over even Puccini’s biggest moments. That brightness of sound both contrasted and fused beautifully with Los’ darker-hued soprano and the two made a most believable pair of lovers.

As Suzuki, Heather Johnson was voluptuous of tone and wholly believable as Butterfly’s true companion and confidante. Their mutual playfulness during the Cherry Blossom duet vividly reminded us that, despite all they’ve endured, these are still young girls.

Elegant of voice, and a powerful physical presence, Edward Parks brought out all of Sharpless’ concerns for the heroine, watching her fate play out almost as prophecy.

Soloman Howard, Robert Mellon and Eliza Bonet all made strong impressions in their roles, rounding out as fine a cast as one could hope for.

Stephen Lord led the orchestra and chorus in a propulsive, energetic reading of the score that would have made Puccini proud. The two great interludes of Act II allowed these forces to create aural tapestries that matched perfectly both the intensity and elegance of what we were witnessing onstage. Costumes by Millie Hiibel were frequently stunning (Goro’s get up being particularly memorable) and Jamie Grant’s lighting design aided beautifully bringing focus and clarity throughout.

Prolonged curtain calls, cheers and sustained applause all seemed fitting to end a night of genuine operatic magic.

Bravo a tutti!