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Performances

Graphic courtesy of Santa Fe Opera
01 Aug 2018

Santa Fe Floats a Beauteous Butterfly

Two new stars moved triumphantly into the ongoing run of Santa Fe Opera’s mesmerizing rendition of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.

Santa Fe Floats a Beauteous Butterfly

A review by James Sohre

Above graphic courtesy of Santa Fe Opera

 

Ana María Martínez is an operagoer’s dream of a Cio-Cio-San. Ms. Martínez not only has the role utterly securely in her voice, but has also anchored it deeply in her soul. She starts out coloring her substantial soprano sweetly, tremulously, deferentially, and thanks to her slim figure and youthful movement, she manages to actually suggest the naïve fifteen year old bride.

With her first utterance of Act II, however, she suggests a world-weary weight in the instrument that at once conveys her subsequent anguished plight. There is no aspect of this complex characterization that escapes her, and her complete command of the score’s demands places her squarely on the very short list of the role’s most accomplished practitioners.


Video courtesy of LA Opera

Moreover, her alluring creamy middle register rises seamlessly to gleaming heights above the staff. Her ravishing climactic top notes rang out in the house, and her flawlessly controlled, floated pianissimo effects were just as stunning. The rich dramatic detail and nonpareil musicianship that Ana María Martínez brings to this performance is the beating heart of the evening’s persuasive music making.

It is to Joshua Guerrero’s great credit that he actually imbues the caddish Pinkerton with genuine appreciation of his young bride, a believable soft spot for her boundless devotion, and a deeply felt remorse for the heart-rending results of his feckless decisions. Mr. Guerrero’s youthful, burnished tenor handily meets all the demands of the role. While his technique is even throughout the range, the very highest notes in Act I seemed slightly veiled. With his re-emergence in Act III, the voice displayed a more pointed gleam that made his contribution to the trio and especially his impassioned Addio, fiortio asil moments of unsurpassed beauty.

Martínez and Guerrero were successfully joining a “work in progress.” The rest of the solid cast was continuing in the run that began earlier in the season. The fluid sense of ensemble and the admirable execution of the business were so natural, that it appeared this cast had collaborated together for months.

Mezzo-soprano Megan Marino was a revelation as the faithful Suzuki. Ms. Marino’s plummy, stirring low register blossomed effortlessly into an easy middle and upper range that not only imbued The Flower Duet with limpid glamour, but also rang out with urgent conviction as she tries to compel the steadfast heroine to seek another life course. Her staunch, sometimes salty impersonation was a force to be reckoned with.

Nicholas Pallesen proved a fine asset as the well intended, if dithering consul Sharpless. Mr. Pallesen sports a beefy, rolling baritone that he deploys to good effect. He effectively communicated the character’s vacillating intentions, paralyzing indecision and continually withering resolve. If there was an occasional lumbering phrase in the passaggio, his was an engaging traversal, replete with some stirring high notes.

Matthew DiBattista was a particularly self-serving Goro (the men don’t come off so well in this piece, do they??). His oily insinuations were nonetheless wonderfully vocalized. Indeed, in the opening banter, Mr. DiBattista’s timbre sounded more akin to Mr. Guerrero’s leading man than the usual comprimario. His deliciously unctuous characterization was fully realized and relentlessly focused. As the Bonze, Solomon Howard seemed a force of nature, his powerful, rich bass booming out the character’s damning disapproval.

Kenneth Stavert was a particularly imposing Price Yamadori, his stature and sturdy baritone boldly embodying the spoiled, pompous royal. Hannah Haggerty was given more to sing as Kate Pinkerton than is usual, and Ms. Haggerty’s plush, attractive mezzo made the most of every opportunity. Stavert, Haggerty, and all of the Apprentice Singers shone in their brief solo assignments, with bass Colin Ramsey contributing particularly suave declamations as the Registrar. Youngster Paulino Rivera-Torres was a heart-tugging presence as Trouble, who startlingly executes a real coup de theatre at a critical dramatic moment. Susanne Shelton’s chorus was a well-knit ensemble.

I have enjoyed many fine performances from the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra over the years but none has been quite as effortlessly radiant as this Puccini. Conductor John Fiore led such a stylish, colorful, committed reading that the band became another character in the drama. Maestro Fiore exerted awesome control of his forces, partnering wonderfully with the singers with the accommodating elasticity that they needed to “live” the tragic story. From the lush banks of strings to the characterful solo playing, the assemblage made a definitive case for Puccini’s masterpiece.

There was more music than usual, with material included that the composer had excised. While it was all performed to a fare thee well and was interesting to experience, perhaps Puccini knew best, and the evening might have been even tighter without some of these rambling additions.

The revival of Lee Blakeley’s production was uncommonly affecting. Matthew Ozawa has directed with a fine eye to defining each character’s personal journey and their interaction with each other. The intriguing character relationships were evidently successful manifestations of subtext and background considerations. The recurring appearance and integration of an American flag yielded many of the shows most stirring moments.

Set designer Jean-Marc Puissant has devised a wholly effective environment. At curtain rise, only the frame of the house, flanked by selectively placed boughs of pink cherry blossoms. As the music begins, the cast brings on the props, and installs the sliding screens on house, as though Pinkerton may be having it built.

The loving, warm look at the close of Act I gave way in Act II to a worn down, sterile space, the blooming trees having been supplanted by the ugly installation of telephone poles and power lines running from down- to up-stage right. The desolation is further communicated by Rick Fisher’s sensitive lighting design ranging from the soft hues at Act I’s wedding, to the austere reality of Act II’s grey day, to the dawning of false hope in Act III. Every lighting design here is brilliantly augmented by the natural dramatic effects of beautiful sunsets seen through the rear of the open stage and sporadic lightning. On this night we were blessed with both.

Brigitte Reifenstuel brought a wealth of invention and imagination to her richly varied costume design. After the attractive japonaiserie of Act I, Ms. Reifenstuel attired the heroine and her servant in severe blacks and grays, subtly suggesting that Cio-Cio-San may be more in mourning than she is in anticipation of her husband’s return. When Butterfly sheds the dark colors to once more don her wedding gown, the effect is even more wrenching.

Thank you, Santa Fe Opera for giving the world this haunting, impeccably mounted, honestly conceived Madame Butterfly. For this viewer, it sets the gold standard against which all future renditions of this evergreen classic will be judged.

James Sohre


Cast and production information:

Cio-Cio-San: Ana María Martínez; B. F. Pinkerton: Joshua Guerrero; Suzuki: Megan Marino; Sharpless: Nicholas Pallesen; Goro: Matthew DiBattista; The Bonze Solomon Howard; Prince Yamadori: Kenneth Stavert; Kate Pinkerton: Hannah Haggerty; Trouble: Paulino Rivera-Torres; Butterfly’s Cousin: Sylvia D’Eramo; Her Mother: Kaitlyn McMonigle; Yakuside: Benjamin Taylor; Her Aunt: Meryl Dominguez; The Imperial Commissioner: Erik van Heyningen; The Registrar: Colin Ramsey; Conductor: John Fiore; Director: Matthew Ozawa; Set Design: Jean-Marc Puissant; Lighting Design: Rick Fisher; Costume Design: Brigitte Reifenstuel; Choreography: Nicola Bowie; Chorus Master: Susanne Sheston; Original Production: Lee Blakeley

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