BWW Review: NY OperaFest Shows COQ and BUTTERFLY as Works that Don't Go Away  -  They Get DayGlo-ed and Deconconstructed

BWW Review: NY OperaFest Shows COQ and BUTTERFLY as Works that Don't Go Away - They Get DayGlo-ed and Deconconstructed

BWW Review: NY OperaFest Shows COQ and BUTTERFLY as Works that Don't Go Away  -  They Get DayGlo-ed and Deconconstructed
Heartbeat Opera's BUTTERFLY.
Photo: Russ Rowland

There's lots going on in the world of opera in New York City, even in this "slow" time of the year. As shown by the schedule of offerings under the umbrella of the ongoing New York OperaFest, co-organized by the New York Opera Alliance and Opera America, they run the gamut from the classics to a peek at virtual reality. In the last week, the New Opera NYC gave us a cockeyed look at Rimsky-Korsakov's LE COQ D'OR (THE GOLDEN COCKEREL), a current rarity in these parts, while Heartbeat Opera took an ax to Puccini--in the admirable name of fixing some racial stereotypes--and gave us a 'Madama'-less BUTTERFLY .

Being done in venues small enough to easily fit in the lobby of the Met--permitting us to get up close and personal with the characters of these works and the singers who portray them--the productions proved, at least, that the two works are sturdy, no matter how they are handled.


The wild and wooly production from the New Opera NYC and its founder/director Igor Konyukhov was straight out of an '80s disco crossed with a child's demented nursery, designed by Zachary Crane, with costumes by Olga Maslova and LED Technology by Oksana Ivashkevych. It stormed its way into the pocket-sized Sheen Center on Bleecker Street last weekend, with black lights, over the top costumes and a game cast.

It has been a long time since New York has seen the work--fans of the old NYC Opera at Lincoln Center fondly remember COQ as a vehicle for the daring duo of Beverly Sills and Norman Triegle. (Not such a rarity outside our fair city, it's being done at Santa Fe this summer.) Sills got the attention, back in 1967, of course, at the beginning of her reign as America's Queen of Opera, but the music's really the thing.

There's something about the trumpet fanfare that opens the opera that puts a smile on your face and makes you ready for anything--and that's before the lively score truly gets started. It's a satire-cum-fairy tale based on a story by Alexander Pushkin, though it's about as far from his EUGENE ONEGIN as you can get, this account of a bizarre Tsar, his nudnick sons, a gorgeous foreign queen and a Golden Cockerel that warns when danger lurks for their kingdom. It's all framed by commentary delivered by the Astrologer, who has presented the cockerel to the Tsar; though Pushkin had some political criticism of Mother Russia in mind, the satire is submerged here to make way for the silliness and, frankly, it was all right with me.

Here, at the Sheen Center, the starring roles went to bass Mikhail Svetlov, who has sung at the Bolshoi, as the ridiculous Tsar Dodon (emphasis on the 'dodo'), who had a field day with all its comic and vocal possibilities, and soprano Julia Lima as the Queen of Shemakha, complete with DayGlo lips and an outfit that made her look like Mazeppa from Broadway's GYPSY, with the moxie to match. She fearlessly took on this high-flying role and, a few unearthly notes aside, made it work--and her own. (Sills certainly never had such abs of steel.)

The Astrologer is written in a range that makes dogs howl and probably should have gone to a countertenor, who might have made the switches in register work better. The tenor John Villemaire was not one (though neither was Enrico di Giuseppe, who did it with Sills and Triegle), and he had a rough night. Heard to much better advantage was soprano Ksenia Antonova as the Cockerel, with its familiar (and repeated) call to arms.

As the Tsar's foil, General Polkan, bass Gennadiy Visotsky did well, as did mezzo Ksenia Berestovskaya as Amelfa, a housekeeper. As the two Princes, Aphron and Gvidon (not to be confused with Prince, the singer-songwriter...or maybe so, in Maslova's outre costumes), tenor Antonio Watts and baritone Daniel Kalmic were fine.<

Thanks to New Opera NYC for the opportunity to catch up with this rare bird in town.


There's no question that, despite its gorgeous music, Giacomo Puccini's opera, MADAMA BUTTERFLY is filled with unpleasant stereotypes, the worst being the long-suffering geisha of the title. So it was "off with its head," in the adaptation of Heartbeat's co-artistic director Ethan Heard and Jacob Ashworth (the company's co- music director)--literally.

This version, which lasts about 90 minutes, starts with the action of the original's Act II, as Butterfly waits for her American husband, Pinkerton, to return. (This follows a short prologue featuring, we find out later, Butterfly's son, searching the Internet for traces of his past.) It is followed by enough of Act I to confirm that Pinkerton is a louse and Sharpless his enabler and concludes with a did-she-or-didn't-she suicide. (Her ritual was interrupted by her son, now much older than he was in section one of the reconstructed libretto.)

The action shifts back and forth, between what seems like the original's but also has the Internet thrown in (and Butterfly dressed in modern skirt and sweater in Part I). While it worked well enough as a piece of stagecraft, frankly, I didn't see the point, except to cut it down for those with short attention spans and nonbelievers in the art of classic opera. I didn't feel that the stereotype issue was fixed much and Pinkerton was probably no more unpalatable than he was in the libretto that first appeared at La Scala in 1904. Credit for this goes to director Heard and dramaturg Peregrine Heard.

As Butterfly, soprano Banlingyu Ban was dramatically compelling in a reading that was marred by some intonation issues, but tenor Mackenzie Whitney deserved kudos for his well-sung, convincing Pinkerton. Mezzo Sioban Sung put in a thoughtful turn as Suzuki, while baritone Matthew Singer was in fine form as Sharpless. I was puzzled by the campy reconception of the matchmaker, Goro, but tenor Jordan Weatherston Pitts did well enough with it. (Kate Pinkerton, the American wife, was portrayed by a life-sized mannequin that looked like Barbie grown up. Talk about stereotypes.) In the nonsinging role of Butterfly's son, Noah Spagnola fit in smartly with his more experienced colleagues.

The score was neatly cut down to size by co-music director Daniel Schlosberg and arranged succinctly for five string players and a harp, conducted by Jacob Ashworth. The neat production was designed by Reid Thompson with Oliver Wason's lighting, and costumes by Valerie Therese Bart.

There's no question that being up close to the action adds a great deal to the experience--but I wish that Heartbeat hadn't eviscerated the opera to do it.


BUTTERFLY has two more performances, today, May 26 and Sunday, May 28, at the Baruch Performing Arts Center. For more information see Heartbeat's website. (Performances of their adaptation of Bizet's CARMEN will take place on May 27-28.)

LE COQ D'OR, from New Opera NYC, finished its run on May 21.

The New York OperaFest continues through June and July.


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Richard Sasanow Richard Sasanow has been's Opera Editor for more than four years, with interests covering contemporary works, standard repertoire and true rarities from every era. He is an interviewer of important musical figures on the current scene--from singers Diana Damrau, Peter Mattei and Angela Meade to Pulitzer Prize winning composer Kevin Puts, librettist Mark Campbell and director Kevin Newbury.

Earlier in his career, he interviewed such great singers as Birgit Nilsson and Martina Arroyo and worked on the first US tour of the Vienna State Opera, with Karl Bohm, Zubin Mehta and Leonard Bernstein, and the inaugural US tour of the Orchestre National de France, with Bernstein and Lorin Maazel.

Sasanow is also a long-time writer on art, music, food, travel and international business for publications including The New York Times, The Guardian, Town & Country and Travel & Leisure, among many others.