Review: MADAMA BUTTERFLY at the Aratani Theatre

By: Apr. 16, 2019
BWW Review: MADAMA BUTTERFLY at the Aratani Theatre

On Sunday April 14 Pacific Opera Project (POP) presented Giacomo Puccini's 1904 opera, Madama Butterfly, in Japanese and English in Los Angeles's Little Tokyo. The company also live-streamed it online. Did anyone ever think an American Navy officer would speak to a young Japanese lady in Italian? l'd expect him to speak English and the lady from Nagasaki to speak Japanese. That is what happened at the performance on Sunday. Despite translations from Goro, the marriage broker, and Sharpless, the American consul, Pinkerton and Butterfly had trouble understanding each other as they came from completely different cultures.

Although we are in the twenty-first century, opera directors still have to deal with the nineteenth century cultural attitudes of Puccini and his librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. On a visit to London, the composer decided to use this piece for an opera after seeing David Belasco's one-act play Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan.

Pacific Opera Project's Executive and Artistic Director Josh Shaw and Conductor Eiki Isomura chose to translate the entire libretto so that for the most part the Americans would sing in English and the Japanese in their own language. Shaw and Isomura made the eminently singable version that POP presented to sold-out houses over the past two weekends in Los Angeles. The text could be read as titles projected in both Japanese and English above the stage. Opera in the Heights will present the same production on April 26, 27, and 28, 2019, in Houston, Texas.

Shaw's set showed a period Japanese house with a variety of sliding panels. For a later scene, an inside room contained a historically accurate, 45-star American flag. Around the house, the grounds were covered with flowers and the overhanging cherry tree was in bloom. A footpath led from the house to an observation point from which Cho-Cho San (Cio-Cio San) could watch for Pinkerton's ship, the Abraham Lincoln. Costume Designer Sueko Oshimoto pulled out all possible stops for this show. Her kimonos were authentic and exquisitely detailed. Even on members of the chorus, no two outfits, or even hairdos, were the same. Pinkerton wore a white Navy uniform and Sharpless a black suit and tie with a short white pointed collar shirt that seemed wrong for that particular tie.

This production speaks to the current desire to portray all cultures as worthy of equal respect. In MADAMA BUTTERFLY most of the Japanese roles were taken by people of Japanese extraction. Keiko Clark was originally cast as Cho-Cho San, but on April 14 she was indisposed. Her cover, Australian soprano Janet Todd, showed the mental growth of the young Japanese girl who initially appeared as a shy, teenager but became a mother of great mental strength who accepted that the best thing for her blonde son was to be brought up as an American. Todd sang with a pleasantly strong soprano that hugged the center of each note. Much of her "One Fine Day" cut through the orchestral tapestry as her sound blossomed into dramatic gold.

Peter Lake was a happy-go-lucky 19-year old lieutenant who enjoyed having a girl in every port he visited. If Cho-Cho San's family represented the culture and ancient customs of her country, he stood for the international power of Theodore Roosevelt's "Walk softly and carry a big stick" policies. When his bride's uncle, the Bonze, threatens him with a large walking stick, Pinkerton breaks it in half. Lake sang the first act with gusto and his love duet with Todd was full of warm and brightly-colored romantic sound.

By the last act, Pinkerton was a coward with an American wife. He had run away from Butterfly. I wondered if he would not eventually run away from Kate and any children she might bear him. Lake's beautifully sung Pinkerton was just as much a villain as Scarpia in Tosca or the Sheriff in The Girl of the Golden West.

As Sharpless, Kenneth Stavert sang with bronzed dramatic tones in both languages as he tried to make Pinkerton comprehend that Butterfly never understood their marriage contract was not truly binding. Stavert's voice was not large, but his acting expressed his attempt to save Butterfly from her uncaring husband. In his own way, Goro, the soft-voiced marriage broker sung by tenor Eiji Miura, also tries to save her, but his offensive manner gets in the way. Perhaps the most bilingual of all the characters, he offers her respectability and a way out of her dilemma. She chooses death instead.

Suzuki is a difficult part physically because she is frequently running from one part of the stage to another. Mezzo-soprano Kimberly Sogioka showed the beauty of her middle register as she sang in exquisite Japanese. Hisato Masuyama was a frightening Bonze who had no respect at all for Butterfly's wedding. Steve Moritsugu as Prince Yamadori, Norge Yip as the Commissioner, and Takuya Matsumoto as the Registrar sang their dramatic roles in Japanese. As Chelsea Obermeier, tall, willowy Kate Pinkerton sang her lines in English.

Chorus Master Naoko Suga's group sang an exquisite Wedding Scene even though they tended to stay together rather than interact as couples or individuals. Maestro Isomura's small orchestra played with both security and transparency. I only wish I could go to Houston to hear this production again.

Photo by Mike Tomasulo

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