Princeton Festival Presents “Madama Butterfly” With Impressive Visuals and Singing
By Nancy Plum
Princeton Festival opened its mainstage opera production this past weekend with an audience favorite in Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Now one of the most popular Italian operas in the repertory, Puccini’s 1904 Butterfly was an unexpected disaster on its premiere night in Milan, leading the composer to revise the opera into the blockbuster it is today. Princeton Festival’s presentation Saturday night at McCarter Theatre Center’s Matthews Theatre was every bit the crowd-pleaser it should be, showcasing several stand-out singers in the process. Some operas lend themselves to restaging in other time periods, but Madama Butterfly is best left in its original timeframe of late 19th-early 20th-century Japan. Set in the harbor town of Nagasaki, Butterfly combined Puccini’s lush orchestrations and melodies with an exotic seaside locale to tug at audience heartstrings. Princeton Festival’s production, sung in Italian with English supertitles, took every advantage of Puccini’s rich melodic writing to convey a poignant storyline.
Princeton Festival conductor Richard Tang Yuk began the opera with a clean overture, with crisp pizzicato playing from the strings and brass kept concise so as not to overwhelm the rest of the ensemble in the orchestra pit. Designer Wally Coberg’s opening set, which stayed fairly consistent throughout the production, was an elegant wooden pagoda against a muted backdrop, with sliding doors allowing traffic across the stage. Navy Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton was portrayed as unusually young, which made his naiveté about his marriage to a sight-unseen Butterfly all the more believable. Tenor Matthew White sang the role of Pinkerton with consistent sensitivity, showing particular vocal power late in the opera. White’s voice was well-matched with soprano Yulia Lysenko’s Butterfly, with both performers singing with ease.
Lysenko in particular showed that Puccini’s music was written for a voice such as hers; gliding across the stage in quasi-platform flip-flops, Lysenko floated higher musical passages over the orchestral accompaniment and clearly was not afraid to sing at a pianissimo volume to make a theatrical or musical point. There was no doubt that she believed what she was singing — that Pinkerton would return to her. Joined in the first act by a well-blended chorus of fellow geishas, Lysenko consistently matched the drama of the music while onstage almost the entire opera.
A powerhouse singer was heard in mezzo-soprano Janara Kellerman, singing the role of Butterfly’s servant Suzuki. Kellerman, well-experienced at heroic mezzo roles, sang Suzuki’s lines solidly to support Butterfly in the first act, then came into her own dramatically in Act III, as Pinkerton’s house of cards came tumbling down and Suzuki struggled to protect Butterfly. Kellerman and Lysenko combined in the second act for an exquisite “Flower Duet” of perfectly matched vocal timbres, followed by an equally as exquisitely set and backlit “Humming Chorus” (with especially touching petals falling from the sky) to close the act.
Baritone Paul La Rosa brought a solid vocal performance to the role of Sharpless, the American consul, while tenor Anthony Webb sang the part of marriage broker Goro with an element of jaunty humor. Both of these singers added well to a humorous ensemble scene as a parade of relatives and officials orchestrated the marriage of Butterfly and Pinkerton. The role of Butterfly’s young son Trouble has been double-cast between Spencer Brown and Lionel Burton, with Burton holding his own in the long unspoken role on opening night.
Marie Miller’s costumes were subdued in color, with a splash of red used sporadically and effectively in Butterfly’s costumes, and brightly-colored parasols adding some of the only color to the wedding scene. Tang Yuk and the Princeton Festival Orchestra kept the operatic pace moving along well, with violins and harp subtly accompanying Lysenko in Butterfly’s signature “Un Bel Di Vedremo” aria. Throughout the production, there was a great deal of dramatic ebb and flow from both singers and orchestra, with particularly strong musical development in an Act II “Letter” scene between Butterfly and Sharpless.
Although Princeton Festival did not tamper with Puccini’s original dramatic and musical intentions for Madama Butterfly (as other opera companies might have done), under the direction of Stephen LaCosse and conducting of Tang Yuk, this was a story as old as time with music that has held up for more than a century.