March 29, 2023

Boheme Opera NJ Presents Compelling Production of Puccini Classic

By Nancy Plum

It is difficult not to bask in the music of late 19th-century Italian opera master Giacomo Puccini. The soaring melodic lines and lush orchestrations of Puccini’s operas captivate listeners, even if they are not opera fans. Boheme Opera NJ brought operatic simplicity and Puccini’s opulent music to the stage of The College of New Jersey’s Kendall Hall Theater this past weekend with a new production of the timeless Madama Butterfly. Conceived and directed by Stefanos Koroneos and sung in Italian with English supertitles, this performance was highly entertaining and gave the audience more than a few thrilling moments of singing.

As with all their productions, Boheme Opera NJ compiled a cast of experienced performers, including both singers returning to the company’s stage and those making a debut. In Friday night’s performance (the opera was repeated Sunday afternoon), conductor Joseph Pucciatti began the opera overture quickly and with breathless musical energy, as the curtain opened on a modest set of Butterfly’s house bathed in black and shadows.

As lead character Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly), soprano Ashley Galvani Bell brought operatic experience going back to her childhood as a member of the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus. Bell showed a ringing upper register, especially in Butterfly’s signature aria “Un bel dì,” as she maintained eternal hope that her beloved Pinkerton would return. Clearly a woman who knew what she wanted, Bell’s Butterfly demonstrated a wide range of emotions through the music — teasing with Pinkerton, calming with her son and demure at the right times.

Tenor Jeremy Brauner, a veteran of Boheme Opera NJ’s productions, sang the role of Butterfly’s husband B.F. Pinkerton. Brauner began his singing career as a baritone and carried the power and richness of that lower register through Pinkerton’s vocal range, and both Brauner and Bell could be well heard over an orchestra that at times was a bit too lush. Brauner effectively conveyed the arrogance, and later guilt, of a serviceman who left behind a broken relationship and came too late to regret his decision. As Butterfly’s servant Suzuki, mezzo-soprano Ashley Kay Armstrong had mastered the art of being perfectly still and subservient yet was a fierce gatekeeper to Butterfly. Armstrong sang with a rich resonant sound throughout the role, and the Act II “Flower Duet” with Butterfly showed the voices of these characters to be perfectly blended.

Baritone Daniel Sutin, performing the role of U.S. Consul Sharpless, sang with a commanding voice and a timbre well matched with Pinkerton. Sutin was dramatically crisp and decisive in the Act II scene reading Pinkerton’s letter to Butterfly affirming a lack of interest in returning to her. The quirky character of marriage broker Goro can fall into being overacted, but tenor John Easterlin was successfully humorous without being a caricature. Butterfly’s uncle, a priest known as “The Bonze,” was a menacing character in his mission to denounce Butterfly, and bass Charles Schneider brought a bit of Tosca villain Scarpia to his portrayal of this overbearing relative. Baritone Stephen Walley, soprano Colleen Kinderman, baritone Ian Bethmann, and child actor Cole Nelessen rounded out this efficient and well-selected cast.

Conductor Pucciatti led a crisp orchestra in the pit, finding full emotional drama in Puccini’s music and keeping the score moving along at a brisk pace. Pucciatti and soprano Bell found an effective musical flow in Butterfly’s Act I aria “Ieri son salita tutta sola,” and the orchestra conveyed humor in the lively scene of endless relatives attending Butterfly’s wedding. The orchestral accompaniment was particularly poignant in the Act II closing “humming chorus,” sung by a well-trained ensemble of geishas.

Designer Olga Turka’s costumes for the principal characters were in subtly muted shades, contrasted by Butterfly’s brightly-colored bridal clothing. The sets for this production were simple and unassuming, never drawing attention away from the music and varied by designer Joseph Lazarus’ lighting choices. Director Koroneos also found humor within Puccini’s passionate story and music, especially a scene with Goro showing Pinkerton a photo array of other possible brides in an attempt to lure him away from Butterfly.

Boheme Opera NJ has a history of both seeking out first-rate operatic singers for its productions and facilitating the developing careers of up-and-coming performers. This past weekend’s production of Madama Butterfly fit right into the company’s 34th season of focusing on high-quality performance as opera, one of the most complex arts forms, emerges from three years of pandemic.

Correction: In the March 22 Music Review [“Princeton Pro Musica Performs Monumental Bach “Passion” at Full Strength,” page 17] the name of the Evangelist was listed incorrectly. The correct name of the Evangelist for the St. John Passion is Steven Caldicott Wilson.