The warhorse dilemma

Portland Opera's Puccini production provides good performances but few surprises

By ANGELA ALLEN

Portland Opera has staged the beloved Madama Butterfly seven times since 1967. I have seen the opera seven times since 1962 – not all at PO. This latest PO Butterfly opened Oct. 25 and wound up a four-performance run Nov. 2 at the Keller Auditorium.

Why do I keep going back?

It gets under your skin. I unabashedly love Giacomo Puccini’s sweeping melodies that make space for Japanese folk music and American tunes.

Nina Yoshida Nelsen as Suzuki and Hiromi Omura as Cio-Cio-San in Portland Opera's 2019 production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.
Nina Yoshida Nelsen as Suzuki and Hiromi Omura as Cio-Cio-San in Portland Opera’s 2019 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.

I love the tragic story of boorish racist American Navy Lt. B.F. Pinkerton (sung competently by Mexican tenor Luis Chapa). During a stopover in Japan, Pinkterton takes flighty 15-year-old Butterfly as his bride with the help of marriage broker Goro (Karl Marx Reyes), abandons her for three years, remarries, and returns to take their child back to America.  It is an emotionally brutal story that is based on truth. Yes, Asian brides–and no doubt women of other cultures–were loved and left by Westerners who traveled their way for war or business. Part of the tragedy is that the resulting mixed-race children did not fare well in traditional cultures.

I even like the turn-of-the-century libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, which–despite the subject matter–doesn’t drip with sentimentality. And I love Cio-Cio-San, aka Butterfly, a brave, isolated and doomed character who gives up her Japanese life and religion and adopts the “American God” and Western clothes. She has hope and backbone till the end when her child is whisked away by her entitled estranged husband and his American wife, Kate.

Mezzo-soprano Camille Sherman, a PO resident artist, played Kate sympathetically (perhaps this was Puccini’s ploy to ease some Western angst and guilt). When confronted with Kate taking the child, Butterfly realizes that rearing blue-eyed Japanese offspring would be a cultural disaster for her son and for herself, so she releases him to the Americans and kills herself. End of story–almost. In this production, Pinkerton lay down beside her dead body.

With such a story attuned to equally dazzling music, I’ve kept returning to Madama Butterfly, which flourishes among such other treasured warhorses as Tosca and La Boheme.

Hiromi Omura as Cio-Cio-San and Nina Yoshida Nelsen as Suzuki in Portland Opera's 2019 production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.
Hiromi Omura as Cio-Cio-San and Nina Yoshida Nelsen as Suzuki in Portland Opera’s 2019 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.

The warhorse dilemma

Most opera companies claim they need the dearly beloved oldies to balance the books. PO has kicked off its last two seasons with fall blockbusters, though the company makes a valiant effort to balance its repertoire with more innovative “festival season” operas. Upcoming productions include An American Quartet in February with short pieces by Gian Carlo Menotti, Samuel Barber, Douglas Moore and Lee Hoiby. Antonio Vivaldi’s Bajazet with Portland Baroque Orchestra follows in March 2020, and the premier of Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers ends the season in July. Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci will be staged in June with Garnett Bruce directing a new-to-Portland production created by New Orleans Opera.

The summer season festival, which began in 2015-16, lost the opera half its subscribers and half its single-ticket buyers, newly appointed PO general manager Sue Dixon told Arts Watch by email. So, deeper in the hole and on the way to shoring things up–with the success of 2018’s La Traviata (yet another dependable oldie) and the box-office triumph of this year’s Madama Butterfly–PO will be returning in 2020-21 to fall-spring programming, likely sprinkled with oldie goldies. That’s what audiences want, Dixon says.

Hiromi Omura as Cio-Cio-San and Luis Chapa as B.F. Pinkerton in Portland Opera's 2019 production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.
Hiromi Omura as Cio-Cio-San and Luis Chapa as B.F. Pinkerton in Portland Opera’s 2019 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.

Few surprises

To avoid becoming jaded over Butterfly, I look for surprises, and Portland Opera’s latest production didn’t offer many new and astonishing moments, other than combining the second and third acts into a long second act–and, on opening night, the unfortunate illness of Maestro George Manahan. Assistant conductor and chorus master Nicholas Fox took over and did a fine job of directing the familiar music.

Even without surprises, the 2-hour- 40-minute opera holds its hallowed ground. Japanese soprano Hiromi Omura, making her U.S. debut, sang exquisitely. Her performance was pitch-perfect. In these days of ad infinitum cultural-appropriation talk, it was a plus to see a Japanese woman singing the main character.

Luis Chapa as B.F. Pinkerton and Hiromi Omura as Cio-Cio-San in Portland Opera's 2019 production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.
Luis Chapa as B.F. Pinkerton and Hiromi Omura as Cio-Cio-San in Portland Opera’s 2019 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.

The Tokyo-born Omura has performed the role since 2004–about 120 performances in 20 productions throughout 15 countries, she said in an email. She loves the role. And for the first time, in this production she was directed to lie on a futon and sing. Her Butterfly role models are Tamaki Miura, Geraldine Farrar and Renata Tebaldi. Though she is not a teenager like Cio-Cio-San, her performance convinced us that she’s young and naive. She moved gracefully and handled a 3-year-old boy deftly while singing her heart out. The “Volgiatemi bene” love duet,  “flower duet” and “Un Bel di Vedremo” were exquisitely sung.

On opening night, the perfectly behaved “boy,” Sorrow, was played by four-year-old girl Vivienne Esme Muir with the poise of a child several years older. The child is onstage for most of the second act, when Butterfly is waiting for her rogue “husband” to return. As we wait with them, the humming chorus breaking our hearts, we mourn Butterfly well before she does. She will learn the truth we already know. Pinkerton cavalierly married her, intentionally abandoned her, remarried in America, and will return to take their son–not to remake a family with her.

The set by Lloyd Evans, originally constructed for New York City Opera, was knock-out stunning, with Cio-Cio-San’s small wooden house built high on a hill overlooking a village studded at night with tiny lights. The set resembled a Japanese print, made more intense and moving by Mark McCulloch’s shrewd lighting. The secondary character performers, most of them making their PO debuts, were fine. Nina Yoshida Nelsen, the mezzo who sang Cio-Cio-San’s prayerful servant and no-nonsense companion Suzuki, stood out.

Nina Yoshida Nelsen as Suzuki in Portland Opera's 2019 production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.
Nina Yoshida Nelsen as Suzuki in Portland Opera’s 2019 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.

Cultural sensitivities

Stage director E. Loren Meeker, well aware of the potential cultural faux pas and stereotyping in Butterfly, enlisted Momo and Kevin Suzuki to help the cast with “movement” and “cultural understanding.” Momo Suzuki is artistic director of the Japanese Folk Dance Institute of New York, so no one should complain of awkward white people trying to look Japanese. This production was preoccupied by political correctness, social responsibility and cultural sensitivities, as the PO program explained over and over in its notes. Chapa encouraged the audience to boo for his character, Pinkerton, at curtain call–though that is not anything new in Butterfly productions.

Interestingly, after Butterfly’s disastrously-received 1904 debut in Milan, Puccini had to rewrite the opera, which he had banked on being his masterpiece. Audiences and critics complained that it was too long and too anti-Western. The US Navy objected to the racist and callous depiction of its sailors and officers. Butterfly stole hearts with its revised score in Brescia, Italy, later that year and has since become part of the popular canon.

Hiromi Omura as Cio-Cio-San in Portland Opera's 2019 production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.
Hiromi Omura as Cio-Cio-San in Portland Opera’s 2019 production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.

Finally, let’s return to justifying the much-beaten and beleaguered warhorse. Warhorses aren’t just for keeping opera companies in the black, nor designed to satisfy stodgy contributors. They can draw new audiences, and anyone who follows music knows that opera companies need new and younger fans. You want to start a newbie out on John Adams or Benjamin Britten or Philip Glass? Those composers’ operas probably won’t make converts of them. Lush melody and easy-to-follow dramatic or tear-jerking storylines can ease the way for a first-time opera-goer.

Still, I do wish directors would take more creative risks with a popular canon piece like Butterfly. Some would argue that staging it seven times in 52 years is not an overdose. There are so many ways to make an old opera fresh, and to prompt us to keep wanting to feast on it again.

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative and journalistic writing to Portland-area students. In 2019, she was elected to the executive board of the Music Critics Association of North America. Her website is angelaallenwrites.com.

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