BWW Review: Elizabeth Caballero's Captivating Performance Highlights Nashville Opera's MADAME BUTTERFLY
2019-20 Season Opening Features Exquisite Production of Puccini's Classic Romantic Tragedy
Elizabeth Caballero's captivating performance as the tragic romantic heroine Cio Cio San, the titular lead of Puccini's classic opera Madame Butterfly, is so breathtakingly, so exquisitely heartbreaking that she alone is enough to make the 2019-20 season opening production from Nashville Opera a triumph, but director John Hoomes surrounds her with a cast of equally impressive singers who bring the romantic tragedy to life with such vigor and style that any of them might serve as reason enough for audiences to take note.
Opulent and lush, Pucciini's time-honored score is performed with utmost professionalism by the members of the Nashville Opera Orchestra, under the direction of conductor Dean Williamson, and the story - no matter if you've seen Madame Butterfly countless times or if this is your first outing to the opera - is sure to wield its emotional power in ways unimagined, yet completely expected. A perfect blend of operatic tradition with contemporary artistry, the story of Madame Butterfly is certain to pack an emotional wallop.
Since its 1904 premiere at La Scala, Madame Butterfly (inspired by David Belasco's play, Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan, which in turn was inspired by an 1898 short story "Madame Butterfly" by John Luther Long), has become a classic of the opera stage, ranked among the best-loved and most-performed works in the entire operatic canon (along with Puccini's La Boheme and Tosca). It's easy to see why: the score is memorable, its melodies beautiful, the tale of young Butterfly, who falls in love with a dashing American naval officer, remains universally resonant, and the visual trappings of a production of Madame Butterfly are requisitely stunning, making it an ideal undertaking for any company hoping to establish its operatic bona fides.
For devotees of musical theater, who may find themselves at an opera for the first time, it should be noted that the story of Madame Butterfly has served as the inspiration for countless other productions over the past century and more, including the hit musical Miss Saigon, which re-sets the story in the days of the American withdrawal from Viet Nam. The tale of a selfless young mother, who sacrifices all for the love of her child, remains as moving today as it did at the turn of the last century.
Set at the turn of the century in Japan and sung in Italian, Madame Butterfly is nonetheless an American story - the story of the quintessential ugly American, as it were - and one which seems particularly timely given the political tenor of 2019. When 15-year-old Butterfly is selected to become the "wife" of U.S Naval lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, she renounces her religion and, by so doing, repudiates her entire family (she is cast out by her uncle, the Bonze) and upbringing. For Pinkerton, however, the relationship with Butterfly is no more than a diversion until he can return home and marry his real bride. When he leaves, with promises to return to Butterfly, he has no idea he is about to become a father - something he doesn't discover until his return to Nagasaki three years later.
Caballero's heartrending performance provides the heart and soul for the production and audiences are quickly drawn to her character, thanks to her lovely performance and graceful mien. But when she sings, it is as if angels have taken wing and Caballero transports her audience to another level of artistic existence. Her crystalline voice so effortlessly caresses the glorious notes of Puccini's score that she elevates those around her with her artistry, thus ensuring that Act Two's "Un bel di" - perhaps the best-known and most beloved of operatic arias - makes a greater impact, falling like so many petals from a grove of Japanese cherry trees upon the quietened assemblage of audience members.
As the devious and duplicitous Pinkerton, tall, dark and handsome tenor Adam Diegel cuts a rakish figure in his sharp military uniforms and he moves about the stage while embodying the perceived confidence of his nation in every movement and every note sung. Lester Lynch, as American consul general Sharpless, delivers a robust performance in which he telegraphs his disdain for Pinkerton's cruel treatment of Butterfly.
But it's Cassandra Zoe Velasco, as Butterfly's loyal and loving maid Suzuki, whose best encapsulates the audience's revulsion at Pinkerton's cavalier thoughtlessness, seething with rage even as she retains her placid demeanor while watching her mistress' heart shattered beyond recognition.
Joel Sorensen is quite good as the unctuous marriage broker Goro, while Brent Heatherington shines in a pair of roles as both the Bonze and Prince Yamadori, the feckless young royal who pursues Butterfly's hand in marriage after Pinkerton returns to America. Mezzo Sara Crigger is quietly effective as Kate Pinkerton, the American bride of the deceptive Lieutenant Pinkerton, while Luke Harnish plays the Imperial Commissioner.
Tavi Gray assayed the role of Sorrow, the son of Butterfly and Pinkerton, during Thursday's opening night performance.
The Nashville Opera Ensemble, under the direction of Amy Tate Williams, features a good many personalities familiar to Nashville theater audiences, including Billy Dodson, Stephanie Jabre, Emily Apuzzo Hopkins, Josh Ritter, Donald E. Carter III, Brooke Leigh Davis, Kelly Dutton, Amie Lara, Caitlin Marie Miles, Tyler Samuel, Mara Bloomfield Smotherman and Jessica DeZwaan Taylor.
Madame Butterfly. Opera in two acts by Giacomo Puccini. Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Directed by John Hoomes. Conducted by Dean Williamson, featuring the Nashville Opera Orchestra. Production created for the L.A. Opera, scenery designed by John Gunter made available courtesy of Utah Symphony/Utah Opera. Presented by Nashville Opera. At Tennessee Performing Arts Center's Andrew Jackson Hall. Through Saturday, October 12. For information, go to www.nashvilleopera.org. Sung in Italian, with projected English supertitles. Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes (with one 20 minute intermission).
Nashville Opera photos by Anthony Popolo