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Yunah Lee (Cio-Cio-San). [Photo by Mark Kiryluk courtesy of Central City Opera]
07 Jul 2010

Central City stages Butterfly with a bite

CENTRAL CITY — No matter how much verismo you heap onto Madama Butterfly, the opera — the favorite of American companies — remains a threadbare — if tragic — tale of a love that failed.

Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly

Butterfly: Yunah Lee; Pinkerton: Chad Shelton; Suzuki: Mika Shigamatsu; Sharpless: Grant Youngblood. Director: Catherine Malfitano. Conductor: Matthew Halls.

Above: Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San

All photos by Mark Kiryluk courtesy of Central City Opera


Nonetheless, you get stuck on the flypaper of Puccini’s sometimes saccharine score, tear up and go home thinking you’ve experienced Great Art. That — happily — ended locally in 2005 when veteran soprano Catherine Malfitano came to Central City to direct a Butterfly with a bite.

The production returned to the historic CCO house on Saturday, and it’s even more brilliant than it was five years ago. Malfitano has focused her experienced attention on two aspects of the opera to achieve this. She places major emphasis on the suicide of Butterfly’s father. Although details are not given, it was an act necessary to preserve his honor — and that of his family. Malfitano adds the late non-singing father to Puccini’s cast. White-clad with long beard, he disembowels himself on stage before the music begins.

CCOSharplessPinkerton.gifGrant Youngblood as Sharpless and Chad Shelton as Pinkerton

Okay, it gives things away, but everyone knows the end anyhow. The father returns throughout the staging to underscore the inevitability of his daughters death. This brings a depth to the score — “an inexorable feeling of fate,” says the director — that it otherwise has never had. Malfitano’s second stroke of genius comes with the love duet that ends Act One. It’s powerful music that easily stands on its own; in this staging, however, Pinkerton, the American Navy man of questionable character, and the still-innocent Butterfly slowly undress each other. It might sound like strip-tease, but it isn’t. It’s done with impeccable taste, mesmerizing slowness and controlled delicacy until the two are silhouetted in embrace against an orange moon. Like a nerve laid bare, this brings the intense sexual undercurrent of the music to the surface, where it stays for the remainder of the staging. Puccini has never had it so good!

To bring life to Malfitano’s ideas, the CCO has assembled an ideal cast and production team. Yunah Lee has made Butterfly her signature role around the world, and Mika Shigematsu is equally celebrated as servant-companion Suzuki. Obviously, you don’t have to be Asian to sing these roles, but it adds to illusion. (And it avoids the excesses of make-up and pathetic pussy-footing of Western singers who try thus to bring “reality” to the 1904 opera.) In addition to a powerful and expressive voice Lee identifies totally with Butterfly, and Shigematsu’s warm mezzo leaves one sitting back just to listen.

CCOPinkertonButterflyWeddin.gifChad Shelton as Pinkerton and Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San

Chad Shelton remains a youthful tenor with a voice of power and passion that downplays the cad Pinkerton is in deserting his bride. Baritone Grant Youngblood, a CCO old-timer, plays an American consul tormented by the wrong that he must nonetheless endorse.

Dany Lyne’s designs and costumes are impressively simple, while retaining hints of the setting in Japan. Near-miraculous is the conducting of Matthew Halls, the young British master of the Baroque who came to Colorado a year ago to conduct Handel’s Rinaldo. Halls asked to be on the podium for Puccini, and one hears why. He understands both story and music and has the CCO pit band playing as if it were the Vienna Philharmonic.

Andrew Altaenbach prepared the chorus of CCO young artists that — effectively — comes to the rear of the stage in blue masks to sing the “Humming” Chorus that accompanies Butterfly’s nocturnal vigil. (Usually the chorus sings off stage.) In the orchestral interlude that follows Halls elevates Puccini to Beethoven’s level as a master of orchestral composition.

CCOPinkertonGoroSuzuki.gifChad Shelton as Pinkerton, Joseph Gaines as Goro and Mika Shigematsu as Suzuki

This is — in sum — is Puccini staged by a troupe of masters who bring new insight — and emotion — to the overworked score. Others exaggerate tricks and trivia to rescue Butterfly from its own popularity. Malfitano knows it’s all there in the music and stages the opera with maximum simplicity — and impact. There may never be another Butterfly like it.

Madama Butterfly plays at Central City Opera through August 9. For information, call 303-292-6700 or

Wes Blomster

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