Opera review: ‘Madame Butterfly’ Soars On Beautiful Wings

Butterfly10Nashville Opera has a beautiful Madame Butterfly on display this week in Jackson Hall. If you’ve watched it before, you’ll appreciate how vibrant this new version is; if it’s your first time, you’ll get a shimmering introduction to one of the opera world’s greatest hits.

As seen at Tuesday’s final dress rehearsal General and Artistic Director John Hoomes has every engaging component in place. Among other elements that includes a soprano who acts as well as she sings – and she sings very well – and a set that plants us so firmly in early 20th Century Japan that one can literally smell the cherry blossoms.

Butterfly16It’s hard to believe this well-beloved opera (which is currently number 7 on the Operabase list of most-performed operas worldwide) was poorly received when it premiered on Feb. 17, 1904 at La Scala in Milan. Giacomo Puccini didn’t give up on the project, however, and after revisions that included splitting the second act into two acts the opera was performed in Brescia on May 28, 1904 to the acclaim that has remained with it since.

Butterfly08Madame Butterfly’s Italian libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa is partially based on the 1898 short story “Madame Butterfly” by John Luther Long that was developed into a play by David Belasco. There are scholars who believe it’s based on actual events that occurred in 1890s Nagasaki – whether that’s the case or not, the story is certainly a believable one given many similar true-life tales over the years.

The plotline, for those unfamiliar with it, pivots on the marriage of U.S. Navy Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton (tenor Harold Meers) and a 15-year-old geisha named Cio-Cio-San, aka “Butterfly” (soprano Jee Hyun Lim). For Pinkerton, the marriage is just a quick convenience; he’s a gal-in-every-port kind of guy who only plans to be serious about marriage when he meets the right American lady. The problem is that Cio-Cio-San takes their union quite seriously; she’s even converted to Christianity, which leads her family and friends to shun her.

The U.S. Consul Sharpless (baritone Levi Hernandez) tries to warn his young friend that his bride will take their vows differently; Cio-Cio-San’s servant Suzuki (mezzo-soprano Margaret Thompson) has a clear-eyed take on the situation too, but her mistress refuses to listen. It’s obvious from the start that tragedy is only a matter of time.

Butterfly12Lim is simply breathtaking as Cio-Cio-San. It’s no surprise to learn that she’s made the role a signature one in her repertoire; with a voice that savors like smooth cream and acting ability that arrests the heart, she is indeed as well-suited to the role as any performer, and audience, might wish. It is indeed “Un bel dì” – “One beautiful day” in English – when Lim treats us to her rendition of that well-beloved aria in Act II; I’m so grateful I got to hear her sing it.

Hernandez plays the opera’s moral conscience with great sensitivity, particularly in his Act I warning to Pinkerton in “Amore o grillo” (“Love or fancy”) and his anguish as Cio-Cio-San pours her heart out to him during Act II’s “Ah! M’ha scordata?” (“Ah! He has forgotten me?”). His rich voice is so filled with emotion that one aches as much for his caught-in-the-middle man as for any character in Madame Butterfly. Like Lim, Meers, Thompson and other principals in this show Hernandez is making his Nashville Opera debut; let’s hope he returns often.

Butterfly01The same is true for his aforementioned colleagues and others like tenor Julius Ahn, who has great fun with the rascally marriage broker Goro, and bass Paul An, who does a fine job of doubling as Cio-Cio-San’s upset uncle The Bonze and the befuddled princely suitor Yamadori.

Butterfly06Thompson has a terrific mezzo-soprano voice, and her acting chops are the equal of anyone in this talented cast. Bella Higginbotham deserves praise for her very charming and focused portrayal of young Sorrow; if anyone is a “born actor,” my bet’s on Bella being one.

Last, but certainly not least among these notables, is Meers. He stepped into the role when tenor Cody Austin had to withdraw from the production because of illness, but he’s no second-string performer; Meers (who recently played Pinkerton at Amarillo Opera) has a gorgeous, crystal-clear sound with plenty of power when it’s required. And he, like Lim and the others, gets full marks in the acting category as well;  “Addio, fiorito asil” (“Farewell, flowery refuge”) in Act III shows his skills off well.

Butterfly05The Nashville Opera Ensemble once again makes an invaluable contribution to the proceedings; their part in Act I’s wedding day is lovely. And Nashville Symphony under William Boggs’ baton has the warm notes of Puccini down cold.

The costumes provided by A.T. Jones and Sons are sumptuous creations. And the wigs and makeup – credit designer Sondra Nottingham and the crew of Kristin Anderson, Jennifer Corday, Megan Ladd, Kristin Savage, Grace Stevenson and Leslie Houl – are just as splendid.

Butterfly14The backdrop for this production is a remarkable set by David Gordon that comes to Nashville from Sarasota Opera. It contains a house with sliding shōji doors, a garden, a fence and a gate that are wonderfully detailed. Add Joe Saint’s sharp lighting design – complete with twinkling stars – and this Madame Butterfly has the wings to provide fine entertainment for those who see it.

Nashville Opera accompanied by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra presents Madame Butterfly on Thursday, Oct. 11 at 7 p.m. and Saturday, Oct. 13 at 8 p.m. in Tennessee Performing Arts Center’s Jackson Hall (505 Deaderick St.)  “Opera Insights” discussions begin in the hall one hour before each show; the opera is sung in Italian with English supertitle translation. Tickets ($26-$102.50) or more information are available by calling the TPAC box office at (615) 782-4040, Nashville Opera at (615) 832-5242 or visiting www.nashvilleopera.org.

*Photos by Reed Hummell courtesy Nashville Opera.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).