December 13, 2019

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MO's Butterfly soars on mighty wings

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 21/11/2017 (752 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Manitoba Opera’s compelling new production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly proves the aching heart expressed through art knows no cultural divide, stretching its poetic wings across the ages since the work’s 1904 Milan première.

Winnipeg’s Robert Herriot directs this production, which opened Saturday night — more than eight years since the opera last was staged here. Maestro Tyrone Paterson, celebrating his silver anniversary on the MO podium with the 45-year old opera company, once again skilfully leads the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra through Puccini’s lyrical, rapturous score, as he did 25 years ago this fall.

Cio-Cio San (Butterfly, Hiromi Omura) joyously spreads cherry blossoms in preparation for Pinkerton's return. Manitoba Opera's production of Puccini's 'Madama Butterfly' runs at the Centennial Concert Hall in Winnipeg Nov. 18, 21 and 24.

ROBERT TINKER PHOTO

Cio-Cio San (Butterfly, Hiromi Omura) joyously spreads cherry blossoms in preparation for Pinkerton's return. Manitoba Opera's production of Puccini's 'Madama Butterfly' runs at the Centennial Concert Hall in Winnipeg Nov. 18, 21 and 24.

The production features original sets designed by Patrick Clark for Pacific Opera Victoria in 2015, with effective lighting by Bill Williams and costumes provided by Malabar Ltd.

The three-act tragedy, sung in Italian (with surtitles) and based on a libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, tells the tale of 15-year-old Cio-Cio San (a.k.a. Madama Butterfly), who weds American naval officer B.F. Pinkerton, based in Nagasaki, Japan. After he returns home to the United States to find a "proper" American wife, she bears his son, little Sorrow, and awaits his return... with tragic consequences.

The 150-minute production (including intermission) features a particularly strong cast of principals in the opera’s notoriously difficult roles. The first of those is world-renowned Tokyo-born soprano Hiromi Omura, performing the role for her 101st time while also marking her MO debut; she delivers a masterful portrayal of the young geisha. She morphs before our eyes from lovesick girl to noble young woman who chooses to die for honour, her soaring, well-paced vocals displayed from her opening Ancora un passo or via — Spira sul mar, until her final, heart-stopping "suicide aria," Con onor muore.

Omura performs her aria, Un bel di, with limpid fragility and ringing high notes as sparkling as the starry night sky, trembling in anticipation for her husband’s ship to sail back into harbour. It earned her the night’s only spontaneous applause and cries of "brava."

However, it’s during the silent, all-night vigil as she awaits Pinkerton’s return where Omura’s deeply felt, exquisite artistry is most evidenced. Every gradation of raw emotional vulnerability flashes across her face with prismatic colour: from hope to fear; love to loss. This is not merely acting a role, but feeling it in every fibre of her being.

Her equal in every way, acclaimed Canadian lyric tenor David Pomeroy bellows and booms as the strapping, 19-year-old Pinkerton, swaggering through opening aria Dovunque al mondo fuelled by strains of the Star Spangled Banner as he chillingly proclaims, "America forever." Pomeroy sets sail on his own harrowing narrative arc, which includes his sweetly tender love duet Viene la sera with his new bride, their voices entwining like lovers’ limbs, until bolting offstage after becoming engulfed by remorse during Act III’s Addio fiorito asil, sung with dramatic intensity.

It’s also a testament to his powerhouse portrayal that the renowned tenor earned boisterous boos during his curtain call from a clearly engaged, impassioned audience; Pomeroy acknowledged them with delight.

Baritone Gregory Dahl brings nuance to his role as U.S. consul Sharpless, who urges Pinkerton to be cautious of Butterfly’s heart, and later becomes caught in the lovers’ downward spiral during trio Io so che alle sue pene.

Maid Suzuki, portrayed by Japanese-American mezzo-soprano Nina Yoshida Nelsen in her MO debut, crafts a dedicated confidante, harmonizing beautifully with Butterfly.

It’s always a joy seeing baritone David Watson onstage; he makes every moment count as the Bonze. Kudos also to Quinn Ledlow (alternating with Ava Kilfoyle), who brings sweet innocence to little Sorrow, despite the evening’s late hour for a tot. Winnipeg baritone Mel Braun serves double duty as the Commissioner and Prince Yamadori, while mezzo-soprano Laurelle Jade Froese instils Kate Pinkerton with sensitive compassion.

However, the production is not without flaw. Cio-Cio San — now Mrs. Pinkerton — remains resolutely Japanese in appearance, still dressed in a kimono during acts II and III, despite singing of her "American house," visually weakening her character’s transformation. And marriage broker Goro (tenor James McLennan), who machinates the nuptials, is far too polite for a scheming plot driver.

Just as Omura paints pictures of wisps of smoke with her voice during her iconic Un bel di vedremo, Herriot likewise uses the stage as a canvas for his creative ideas.

His tableaux include glorious eye candy, including Cio-Cio San’s first entrance flanked by the MO Chorus of geishas who swirl their delicate parasols on the tiered set of sliding shoji screens. Herriot also injects a new layer of fascinating sub-text into the evening’s dying moments, as each lead character reappears onstage to witness Butterfly’s death, trapped in their own worlds of unspoken regret.

The opera Puccini admitted was his favourite peers deeply into the hearts and minds of its doomed characters in a way that still resonates. Despite those who believe his "East-meets-West" operatic butterfly should be captured and pinned to a board — outdated and irrelevant, to be shelved as a curiosity of the past fuelled by then-fashionable "orientalism" — MO’s latest production proves that in the hands of a soaring cast, this great love story still has wings. 

holly.harris@shaw.ca

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