Debuting in 1904, Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” is surprisingly modern in its approach to opera. The arias, duets, and choruses examine America’s attitude towards the rest of the world through a critical lens. Puccini even inverts the Star-Spangled Banner; usually a source of pride, the starting notes of the national anthem appear only at moments of shame. This uncomfortable dichotomy combined with the storyline’s sexism and objectification of women seems apropos over 100 years after the opera’s premiere and invokes the political turmoil in the United States today.
…a memorable performance.
In “Madama Butterfly” U.S. Navy Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton (Jason Slayden) is stationed in Nagasaki, Japan. Pinkerton rents a house from a Japanese man named Goro (Anthony Webb) who also arranges Pinkerton’s marriage with 15-year-old geisha Cio-Cio-San (Eleni Calenos). While Pinkerton views the marriage as a pastime, Cio-Cio-San, alternatively known as Butterfly, views their marriage as sacred, giving up everything for her new husband. When Pinkerton abandons Butterfly and returns to the United States, Goro and Butterfly’s maid Suzuki (Kathryn Leemhuis) try to convince her to forget him. But, Butterfly continues to hope that Pinkerton will return for her; she looks for his ship every day for three years. Finally, Pinkerton returns, but his selfishness and cowardice destroys Butterfly and the life she had hoped for.
As with any opera, the vocal talent of the performers determines the success of the show; the Annapolis Opera Company delivered. Although the performance of “Madama Butterfly” could have benefitted from more Asian representation, or, at the very least, less yellowface, the Annapolis Opera cast was phenomenal. Leemhuis, a mezzo-soprano, expertly employed the lower part of her vocal register, filling every note with the intense emotion of her character. Slayden and Jacob Lassetter (Sharpless, the U.S. consul) maintained impeccable control of their voices, keeping their notes full even when belting. However, Calenos as Butterfly stole the show. Well-deserving of the title role, Calenos was brilliant, singing complicated arias seemingly effortlessly. Her talent did not go unnoticed. After Calenos hit a particularly impressive note, the man seated behind me exclaimed, “Wow!” All the performers were immensely talented, but her voice was particularly breathtaking.
In addition to their incredible vocals, the cast’s acting made for a memorable performance. Calenos and Slayden were completely in sync, and all their interactions, even the smallest instances, further highlighted the disconnect between their characters. The combination of Braxton Peters’ stage directing and the cast’s talent kept the performance’s action downstage without seeming choreographed or overly planned. Additionally, the cast’s motion and interaction with one another added fluidity to the performance and depth to what could have otherwise been a crowded stage. Finally, because the opera was performed in its original Italian, the performers relied on their facial expressions and body language to convey the emotions that language may otherwise express. They pulled me into the story; I was so captivated that I momentarily forgot I was preparing a review.
Equally captivating was the incredible set and lighting. Robert Parker and Steve Cosby’s work with Salt Marsh Opera sets as well as Michael Klima’s lighting design was suberb. Jade green tapestries resembling kakejiku depicted the mountains of Nagasaki, and a small house with sliding screen doors stood stage right. Potted plants covered the stage, forming a garden, and steps descended from stage left to form a kind of bridge. A screen backdrop changed from orange to blue with evening, adding a time dimension to the opera and depth to the stage. The lighting and set design were transporting and complimented the performers’ talent to create a more complete show.
Although the Annapolis Opera Company’s performance of “Madama Butterfly” has closed, they are selling tickets for their upcoming shows, including their 29th Annual Vocal Competition on April 29th and 30th 2017. If “Madama Butterfly” is any indication of their standards of performance, it should be a great show.
Running Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes with two intermissions.
“Madama Butterfly” was performed on March 17th and 19th, 2017 at the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, 801 Chase St. Annapolis, MD 21401. Information about future Annapolis Opera Company performances can be found here or by calling (410) 267-8135.