‘Madame Butterfly’ review: caged dreams

While confronting social and cultural issues, Seattle Opera's new production of Puccini's classic doesn't neglect the music


Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly debuted in 1904 and it has been jerking tears ever since. The opera classic remains resilient and fresh when done well, as it is in this Seattle Opera production playing through Aug. 19 at Seattle’s McCaw Hall.

The opera has heartbreakingly lyrical music, a heartrending story — and Butterfly. She is a huge character: tough, demanding, sweet, beautiful, desirable, playful – and stubborn. She refuses to  face reality until she can’t do anything about it. She is Puccini’s bona fide tragic heroine, unlike Mimi in La Boheme, whom we know will die. Mimi is not destroyed by herself, by some tragic flaw; she dies of tuberculosis. On the other hand, Butterfly crafts much of her own fate.

Yasko Sato (Cio-Cio-San) and Renée Rapier (Suzuki). Photo: Jacob Lucas.

Puccini created exquisite music and knew how to seduce us by synching it with dramatic moments. The music is chock full of mellifluous tunes and gorgeous arias. But it’s as complex as Japanese customs. Underneath, like a bass line, the music suggests caution and treachery. The ominous boom of the drums reminds us that all is not well.

The opera’s plot is as familiar as the first act’s “love duet” between Butterfly and Lt. Pinkerton. But here goes again: A mid-level American sailor (Lt. Pinkerton sung alternately by Dominick Chenes and Alexey Dolgov) stops off in Japan, marries Butterfly when she’s 15 with help of a marriage broker, sets up house with her, impregnates her, and leaves. Butterfly believes he will return for her and her son and their life as a family will commence. She holds on to this fantasy despite warnings and reasoning from those around her. She has another suitor, she has ways out. But she shrugs him off and turns her back. No one can convince her that her dreams are doomed.

Pinkerton returns three years later when Butterfly is 18, not to again take up housekeeping with her, but to retrieve their son, Sorrow, with his new American wife, Kate (Sarah Mattox). And when the moment arrives, he lets his wife do the dirty work by telling Butterfly her son will go to America. Meanwhile he has a minor breakdown. It’s clear why Pinkerton gets booed over and over again at curtain calls even if the role is sung by decent tenors.


Finding Jesus, finding herself

Corey Maier's solo show "Endless Oceans" traces a voyage through faith, sexuality, and the mysteries of discovering one's own truth

A few years ago, when my alma mater Saint Mary’s Academy became the center of a hiring scandal, I learned that there had been a secret Gay-Straight Alliance while I was a student there. This came as a total shock. I distinctly remember seeing references to “Geography Club” (the name this group went by) and wondering, “What the hell does that mean?” before continuing along my way. Well, what it meant was, “this is a GSA we can’t actually call that.” And I’d had no idea.

I don’t know if Saint Mary’s is allowed to have open queer identity groups now. But of course, in many Christian contexts, with so much cultural pressure to the contrary, even an open queer support group might not be enough for some students. One suspects that it wouldn’t have done much for Corey Maier, the writer and subject of the autobiographical solo show Endless Oceans, performing through Aug. 20 at the Back Door Theater (normally the home of Defunkt).

Maier amid the mysteries of life. Photo: Angela Genton

Very early in the show, Maier describes the day she found Christ at the hands of a tattooed youth minister who she portrays with a black beanie cap and a wholesome swagger, who calls her to surrender herself to Jesus. I surrendered myself to Corey just a few minutes before, when she described her less-than-enthusiastic churchgoing as a Catholic youth. There was only one thing she liked about mass, she explains: “The body of Christ was stale … but the blood of Christ was fermented.” She glances at the audience, wide-eyed with the giddy innocence of teenage transgression. “You can take a big gulp.”


‘The Other Mozart’ review: sister act 2

Sylvia Milo's one-sister show at Chamber Music Northwest gives Mozart's talented older sibling Nannerl, her music stifled by sexism, her own voice at last

Unlike the previous night’s Chamber Music Northwest music-theater combination, Ordo VirtutumSylvia Milo’s The Other Mozart, performed July 11 at Portland State University’s Lincoln Hall, ran about 75 minutes with no intermission, and I doubt anyone in the audience felt shorted. It’s an audience-broadening treat to see the festival pursuing these mixed theater and music performances, as with last year’s festival’s Brahms/Muhlfeld show.

In truth, unlike Hildegard, there’s not a lot more to say about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s sister Maria Anna, nicknamed Nannerl, at least not that would make interesting stage drama. (She’s been the subject of a film and novels.) That’s because even though she lived more than twice as long as her brother, we know far less about her life, and the patriarchal world she lived in never permitted equivalent opportunities to make it more interesting. Which is part of the point of Milo’s monodrama, which has been running off-Broadway and touring the world since 2014.

Sylvia Milo in ‘The Other Mozart.’

Engagingly narrated (in, for no discernible reason, German-accented English) by Nannerl herself, the story entertainingly tells (not whines) a tragic tale of a talented musician who at almost every turn is denied the opportunities her similarly skilled brother receives, merely because of her gender and her society’s invidious discrimination against it.

Even most classical music fans probably know little of the brat’s big sis beyond the fact that he wrote delightful duets for them to play on keyboards together, and that she was regarded in her time as an excellent player. In The Other Mozart, we learn much about Nannerl’s life from letters she saved  from family members, including her admiring brother himself, and reviews, some praising her youthful keyboard virtuosity. (Most of her own have disappeared — she was only a woman, after all.)

Milo’s narration in Nannerl’s persona gleefully captures the personalities of her brother, father, sister, and other characters she encounters, especially on the European tours arranged by their father Leopold for her and her brother, hoping to turn the performing pre-teen prodigies into money making attractions. Some considered her at least as talented a performer as her brother, who himself thought her the best performer of his keyboard music; she sometimes received top billing.


‘Ordo Virtutum’ review: sister act 1

In Mulieribus's mix of theater, music and explanation at Chamber Music Northwest proved too much of a good thing

Last month, I went to a concert, and a college lecture broke out. In Mulieribus’s Chamber Music Northwest performance of music by Hildegard of Bingen and other composers at Reed College’s Kaul Auditorium contained some glorious singing, intermittently compelling theater, and informative talk. Unfortunately, all those tasty ingredients made for an indigestible stew. Here’s how it went down. (All timings approximate.)

In Mulieribus sang music by Hildegard of Bingen and other composers at Chamber Music Northwest. Photo: Tom Emerson.

7:30 pm. Concert scheduled to start.

7:40 pm. CMNW executive director Peter Bilotta gives his usual affable introduction, and introduces In Mulieribus and IM board member and Portland conductor and music prof Scott Tuomi. Instead of singing, In Mulieribus members take their seats in chairs on stage while Tuomi reads from prepared text a biography of Hildegard of Bingen, and information about an Italian Renaissance composer, one Giaocomo Fogliano.

7:50 pm. In Mulieribus at last rises and sings a three-minute piece by Fogliano chosen in part because it uses the words “In Mulieribus” (“among women”). The singers return to their seats.

7:53 pm. Tuomi talks — or rather reads — more about Hildegard and about the music of the next composer, Seattle choral director Karen Thomas.

7:59 pm. In Mulieribus rises and sings Thomas’s Hildegard-inspired O virtus sapientiae. Its spiraling melodies provided recognizable references to Hildegard’s own music, while its slightly astringent harmonies and irregular rhythms placed it firmly in the present.

They sit.

8:03 pm. Tuomi expatiates on the featured composer, Hildegard.

8:08 pm. In Mulieribus sings Hildegard’s Caritas abundant. They return to their chairs.

8:12 pm. Tuomi talks about the next composer on the program, Britain’s Tarik O’Regan, one of today’s most important and engaging young choral composers.

8:16 pm. In Mulieribus sings O’Regan’s Columba aspexit, which like Thomas’s work sets Hildegard’s words. They exit.

8:20 pm. Tuomi talks about the main course, Hildegard’s morality play Ordo Virtutum.

8:30 pm. Actors Isaac Lamb, Chantal DeGroat, Dana Green, Maureen Porter and Alex Ramirez de Cruz give a staged reading, in English, of Ordo Virtutum.


‘Lungs’: She’s having a baby

Third Rail's two-hander about anxiety, parenthood, and the state of the world updates the conversation on love and life

Anxiety is nothing new for us mortals, but the anxieties of our own Age of Anxiety can seem unprecedented. Third Rail Rep has birthed to the stage a prescient look into 21st century parenthood and its particular anxieties with its production of Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs, now playing at CoHo Theatre.

Playwright Macmillan hangs with the in-yer-face theater crowd of the U.K. His work shares the painful honesty of the genre, although he handles the audience with a gentler approach than his peers. He’ll shock you, but only because he’s given a line to a character that reveals some fragment of inner dialogue you’ve experienced at one time or another: the kind of inner conversation that if spoken, would lead to both catharsis and shame.


Pierce and Miles: modern problems. Photo: Owen Carey

Anxieties? Take your pick. In the few days before Third Rail’s Lungs opened, Portland’s air hung with what felt like beads of red mercury, magnifying the sun and sweeping up fine particles of dust. The cityscape seemed to be a postcard from the dystopian future. Bone-dry streets summoned up the smell of dirt and caked urine and a museum of litter; they showed off the city’s haves and have nots with struggling homeless camps dotting the underpasses. Local news reported that Portland’s air quality index was worse than Beijing’s, and the governor declares a state of emergency.


Songs for America, bother from another planet

In review: Irving Berlin's "The Melody Lingers On!" at Clackamas Rep and Gore Vidal's "Visit to a Small Planet" at Lakewood

If we really wanted to make America great again, we’d skip all the nonsense about building walls and stoking resentments and keeping out foreigners and just bring back Irving Berlin. Oh, wait: Looks like Clackamas Repertory Theatre’s already done that.

Berlin, who was born in 1888 as Israel Beilin, became an American icon the old-fashioned way: He immigrated to the U.S., from the old Russian Empire. By age 5 he was settled with his family in New York City, and grew up on the Lower East Side when it was cheap and crowded with people from other places, seeking what was once known proudly as “a better life.” He hawked newspapers on the streets and became a singing waiter and started writing songs and had his first big hit on Tin Pan Alley in 1911, when he was 23 – the still familiar Alexander’s Ragtime Band. From there he just kept going and going, through war and peace and the Depression and another war and some boom years and the nation’s evolution from isolationism to internationalism, creating a big slice of the American popular soundtrack from the days of the Charleston through the Broadway musical’s golden age. He died, finally, at age 101, when rock ‘n’ roll had pretty much killed off his kind of music – except, of course, it hasn’t, because it’s with us still.

Meredith Kaye Clark in “The Melody Lingers On!” Photo: Sam Ortega

The proof of that particular pudding, if you need proof, is onstage at Clackamas Rep, where the upbeat and winning revue of Berlin tunes The Melody Lingers On! opened over the weekend and continues through August 27. A mostly bright selection of almost fifty of Berlin’s roughly 1,500 songs presented by a snappy cast in a sharp-looking production, it’s a brightly rhythmic show of song and dance about a composer who made people feel good about being part of America, no matter where they might have come from or where they stood in the national pecking order. Berlin could be dark, but even then he was dark in an enthralling way; mostly he wrote catchy, hummable, optimistic songs that helped project the myth of a can-do country and a people on the rise.


Ashland Shakespeare: out of chaos

This season's four Shakespeare shows – "Henry IV One and Two," "Julius Caesar," "Merry Wives" – ripple across thematic borders

ASHLAND – At first glance, this season’s slate of four Shakespeare plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival feels like a game of “one of these things is not like the other”: Henry IV Part One and Two are an obvious pairing, and they join up with The Merry Wives of Windsor via the character of Falstaff, who appears in all three (a number that leaves him tied with Prince Hal for the second-most appearances of a single character in separate Shakespeare plays, one behind Margaret of Anjou). Then there’s Julius Caesar. Well, that political tragedy’s tone isn’t so far off from the Henry IV plays, but then what about Merry Wives?

For all the plays’ dissimilarities, a closer look reveals rich thematic threads that lend OSF’s Shakespearean season a sense of cohesion, and a subtle but highly relevant message. All of these plays, which continue in repertory in Ashland through mid-October or later, are concerned with the making and breaking of relationships, and with efforts to define community out of chaos.


“Henry IV, Part One”: Hotspur (Alejandra Escalante) prepares to bid her wife Lady Percy (Nemuna Cessay) farewell before joining her father’s rebellion on the battlefield. Photo: Jenny Graham

The two parts of Henry IV make up a sort of mini-repertory in the small Thomas Theatre, with almost all of the actors in them appearing only in those two plays, and casting carrying through from one part to the next. Jeffrey King returns from last year’s Richard II—then, he played the ambitious usurper Bolingbroke, now not-so-firmly settled into his status as King Henry IV.