Syracuse Opera Gracefully Flutters with Sharp, Subtle ‘Madama Butterfly’

Madama Butterfly
Syracuse Opera
Review by Leah Harrison

In their final production of the season, Syracuse Opera staged a sharp and subtle Madama Butterfly that reflected fresh thought, despite being the company’s most frequently performed opera.

The success of the show depends almost entirely on Butterfly, and though the first act closed without supplying definitive confidence in her character or voice, after intermission a dignified heroine emerged.

Played by Mihoko Kinoshita, Butterfly’s voice and persona were packaged together: a lack of cushioning pointed toward severity, but stopped just short of it at an elegant sincerity.  Her warm middle range gave way to reedy, forward high notes—absolutely straight.  It’s as if her timbre informed her acting, and it seemed the entire audience was rapt as they became accustomed to her diversion from tradition, a journey we wished her husband had been willing to take.

B.F. Pinkerton, performed by Patrick Miller, was both laidback and stately in his starched uniform, with a genial midrange, but lacking the comfort and volume for quite a few of the high notes.  Baritone Corey McKern returned to Syracuse Opera (he was Zurga in The Pearl Fishers) to play Sharpless.  His voice is rich and confident, and he did a nice job portraying the concerned consul; actually, the acting in this production was thoughtful across the board.

Penny Gilbert’s set beautifully displayed the delicacy and simplicity of the Japanese aesthetic: a tiny house of sliding paper screens; a red garden bridge and a jagged tree’s silhouette against a stark background; though all props were three dimensional, they maintained the layered look of a two-dimensional Japanese print, a la Hokusai’s The Great Wave.

Patricia Hibbert’s ornate kimonos adorned Butterfly’s family, countering the purity of the set and increasing the degree of authenticity; there is a rumor about town that a Japanese Ambassador saw a production elsewhere with the same costumes and was very impressed by the detail and accuracy.

Jason Ferrante sang the role of Goro, the marriage broker—a greasy man dressed as a Westerner from the waist up, including a bowler hat.

Ferrante was comical, but his voice failed to project in the Civic Center auditorium.  Also disappointing was the Bonze’s performance. Meant to be intimidating, his voice didn’t have the necessary boom (despite some very lively movement).  Sarah Heltzel played butterfly’s servant and companion, Suzuki.  Heltzel’s mezzo is bronzy and her acting especially intuitive.

Douglas Kinney Frost led Symphony Syracuse in the pit, and he exhibited the same understated yet effective mood as Butterfly.  Though the overture began with some contrapuntal work that almost got away from them, they quickly adjusted their grip and played beautifully throughout the evening.

Production choices that worked well include the lack of a second intermission, meaning the audience held watch with Butterfly during the lengthy instrumental interlude.  With the flowers strewn about, it felt like we were in the Garden of Gethsemane (except we weren’t asleep).  Butterfly’s suicide was visible, which made for a humanizing moment for Pinkerton at the end, and the outstretched hand of their three-year-old child—played by Elena Colegrove, rather than The Met’s recent bunraku puppet, was appropriately tragic.

Syracuse Opera can be proud of making an old standard fresh for our community; we can hope this artistic intelligence is subject to a butterfly effect.

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