Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Review: (Ottawa / Opera) Madama Butterfly

(photo: Sam Garcia)
Delicate and Strong
by Jim Murchison
Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly is a little different from most operas. First performed in 1904, before the United States had declared itself liberators of the free world but at a time when the brash young country was starting to spread its influence and sense that the world belonged to it. Unlike other operas it does not have recognizable arias that have woven themselves into pop culture. It is only snippets of the Star Spangled Banner inserted into the score that would be hummable for an untrained singer. 

If it is possible for an opera to be intimate then Madama Butterfly is that opera. The set is sliding paper walls of a traditional Japanese home. One stage left and right and one upstage. That would of course make the audience the fourth wall looking in on the scene of domestic bliss. Director François Racine has infused the production with a sweet quality that allows the audience to fall in love with the heroine. By setting the table in such a way it makes the coming tragedy grander and Butterfly an even more compelling figure.

We first meet marriage broker Goro, American Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton and American consul Sharpless. The three men perform their parts very well. There is a definite pecking order in the old boys club. There is the influence and feeling of entitlement portrayed by Antoine Bélanger as Pinkerton, Joseph Hu as Goro played with an obsequious beaming smile set on brokering a marriage and James Westman as Sharpless acting as Pinkerton's conscience urging him to do right by the girl.

Of the various servants particular mention should be made of Arminè Kassabian as Suzuki. She has a wonderful voice and is very compelling as Cio Cio San's steadfast confidant and friend.

For all the fine voices, direction and acting the most essential element is that you love and empathize with Cio Cio San. Shuying Li's performance in the title role makes it impossible to do anything else. She has such a grace and gentle presence when we meet her as a 15 year old bride and such intense power and heart, both dramatically and vocally as her personal tragedy deepens that you are absolutely riveted. Her voice is as sweet and beautiful as it is powerful and emotional, the perfect combination of technique and feeling.

Add to all this the NAC orchestra under the baton of Tyrone Paterson and Steven Ross's lighting that takes us from bright promising mornings to the final blood red sunset at curtain and you have a production that has the delicacy to float on air and the power to migrate into thousands of hearts. 

April 19 - 26 

Running Time: approximately 3 hours with one intermission. 

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