Arts & Culture » Stage

A geisha's life


It’s more than a little misguided to interpret Cio-cio-san – aka Butterfly – in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, as a vulnerable naïf with emotions of china-cup fragility. True, she’s only 15 and enters into a relationship with moonstruck awe. But here’s a character who knows something of the ways of the world, having worked as a geisha before she hooks up with Pinkerton, a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy. And because she threatens to kill Goro, the pesky marriage broker, one can hardly call her a shrinking violet. Butterfly may be tender, but she’s not delicate. Yet many sopranos portray her as a thin-skinned, little lost lamb.

Chinese soprano Sun Xiu Wei’s departure from that conventional portrayal is what makes Michigan Opera Theatre’s production of this old chestnut of an opera so refreshing. She invests her Butterfly with passion instead of preciousness. Wei’s voice is darker and weightier than what might be considered ideal for the role, but she uses her duskier hues to good dramatic effect, shading her voice with hints of sadness and impending tragedy.

She imbues her entrance with sensual rapture, not mere infatuation. Rather than floating her notes ethereally, Wei projects real passion, and caps off her opening aria with a splendid high D-flat. Her death scene is a potent mix of rage, anguish and despair. Oddly, though, her big moment, "Un bel di," is rushed and strangely tepid.

The rest of the cast is a mixed bag. Kathleen Segar may not be the most memorable Suzuki, but she sings with warmth and dramatic involvement. As Pinkerton, Francesco Grollo is an effective enough heel, but when he says he’s filled with remorse in the last act, he neither sounds it nor acts it. His rather small voice is pleasant if lacking in nuance; there is little gradation between his loud and soft tones. However, his love duet with Butterfly is gorgeously sung.

Victor Ledbetter does a remarkable turn as Sharpless, the American consul. He projects heartfelt sympathy in his exchanges with Suzuki and Butterfly, and his mellow baritone is richly produced.

As Goro, Andrew Foster’s pinched tenor tends to grate. One wonders why director Mario Corradi makes Goro more evil than merely obnoxious. The sinister way he skulks around is dramatically confusing. And all the smoking by Pinkerton and the other sailors in the first act ought to be stubbed out. Smoke around singers is dicey at best.

This may not be chorus master Suzanne Mallare Acton’s finest work, but the "Humming Chorus" is a marvel of weightless, sublime beauty. Zack Brown’s sets, complete with blossoming cherry trees, are fine, but they look like almost all other Butterfly sets.

Steven Mercurio earns his oats in the pit, achieving admirable balance and intonation. The lower strings and brass particularly stand out. In soft passages, Mercurio draws out wispy, feathery sounds from the orchestra – a far cry from not so long ago when the MOT orchestra sounded more like a brass band.

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