Town Topics — Princeton's Weekly Community Newspaper Since 1946.
Vol. LXV, No. 6
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
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Music/Theater

Opera New Jersey Warms Up the Winter With Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”

Nancy Plum

OK, so the guy was a louse. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy stationed in Nagasaki, “married” a former geisha girl, knowing full well he had no intention of honoring the marriage contract. He would be “really” married later — in the United States to an American bride. B.F. Pinkerton may have been a louse, but his “louse-ness” was set to some of the most beautiful music ever written.

Giacomo Puccini composed Madama Butterfly, based in part on a late 18th century short story, after his successes with La Boheme and Tosca and after he had established himself as king of the luxurious melody. Amazingly, Butterfly, despite being full of the same lush melodic writing, was a colossal failure on its opening night. As with many great masterpieces, a few tweaks by the creator propelled the work into operatic stardom and it has remained a repertory favorite ever since.

Opera New Jersey, long known in the Princeton area for its summer series, has in the past few years added a winter production in collaboration with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra (NJS0). This year’s joint production, presented last Friday night in McCarter Theatre’s Matthews Theatre, treated the nearly full house to a very entertaining evening of wonderful singers telling an emotional and poignant story.

In a piece of unusual staging, the members of the NJSO were placed at the back of the stage, with conductor Valery Ryvkin leading the ensemble with his back to the singers. Madama Butterfly does not need a tremendous amount of room to stage, and set designer Julia Noulin-Merat’s simplistic and elegant setting of Butterfly’s house and environs left plenty of room for both orchestra and singers. Conductor Ryvkin had the score very well in hand, subdividing the conducting beat when necessary to smooth out transitions and maintaining the orchestra as an unobtrusive partner in the performance. Although the audience could not see the players, instrumental solos spike well in the hall, especially the solo violin which often accompanied Butterfly with sensitivity and feeling.

As with others of Puccini’s operas, the star of the show was the soprano, and Moldavian soprano Inna Los was a star indeed. Costumed and made up to resemble a porcelain doll, Ms. Los sang with a tremendous range of emotions and vocal shadings, sounding innocent one minute and defiant the next. Ms. Los moved with lithe suppleness, adding to the fragility of her character. Her belief that Pinkerton would return was unrelenting, calling on a full range of vocal power when necessary.

Tenor Scott Piper sang the role of B.F. Pinkerton with conviction in his own deceit and an underlying physical expression that made him seem particularly smarmy. Mr. Piper had full vocal command over the role, actually singing with a little much force in the upper register early in the opera, as if he felt it was necessary to fill the hall. Things smoothed out in the third act, as Pinkerton realized the full consequences of his actions.

Particularly strongly conveyed in this production was the suspicion of Pinkerton (later turned to contempt) of the consul Sharpless, sung by baritone Todd Thomas in a welcome return to the Princeton stage. Mr. Thomas can easily control a stage with convincing presence and solid vocal color, expressing his dismay with Pinkerton’s selfishness with accurate musicality and diction. Metropolitan Opera mezzo-soprano Vanessa Cariddi was one of the first characters to sing onstage in the opening scene of the show, and as Butterfly’s servant Suzuki, Ms. Cariddi proved throughout the production to possess a very rich and controlled voice which was clean across all registers. She and Ms. Los blended together particularly well in the Act II “Flower Duet,” all the more impressive since the conductor and orchestra were behind them. Tenor Matthew Surapine maintained high comic spirit for his role as marriage broker Goro, also drawing on a great deal of physical energy.

Opera New Jersey’s production of Madama Butterfly was appealing to look at, with a set design which would fit well into a Japanese house and eye-catching lighting effects, including trees which effectively changed colors to denote the seasons and luminaries marking the way for Pinkerton’s return. Friday night’s performance was one of collaboration, among orchestra, singers, halls (the opera will be presented in Newark’s NJPAC later this week), and set design (the set conception will travel to El Paso in the future). Given how difficult it is for any art form to survive these days, Opera New Jersey has taken the smart road to build as many collaborative relationships as possible.

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