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A Welcomed Old Approach

Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts
11/15/2014 -  & November 16, 18, 21, 22 (Miami), December 4, 6 (Fort Lauderdale), 2014
Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly
Kelly Kaduce/Vanessa Isiguen (Cio-Cio-San), Martin Nusspaumer/John Pickle (Pinkerton), Caitlin McKechney (Suzuki), Todd Thomas (Sharpless), Daniel Bates (Goro), Will Hughes (Yamadori), Jeffrey Beruan (Bonze), Chance Eakin (Imperial Commissioner), Hailey Clark (Kate Pinkerton), Issac Bray (Official Registrar)
Florida Grand Opera Chorus, Michael Sakir (chorus master), Florida Grand Opera Orchestra, Ramón Tebar (conductor)
Marc Astafan (director), David P. Gordon (scenic design), Allen Charles Klein (costume design), Kenneth Yunker (lighting design)

M. Nusspaumer & K. Kaduce (© B. Mazzurco)

I remember that when I first started taking opera seriously, it seemed that every time I had a chance to attend, the opera was Madama Butterfly. It was never unpleasant, but after about five of them, I needed a break. But lo and behold we got Diana Soviero and every moment felt brand new. Ever since I naturally compare all Cio Cio Sans to Soverio’s and though none has yet lived up to that experience, most have brought something intriguing to the role. These two are especially memorable.

On opening night, Florida Grand Opera gave us Kelly Kaduce, the real thing in singing actresses. Her 2002 company debut as Marguerite is still talked about; this is her eighth role with the company. Her interpretation is like no other. The girlishness in the first act is for once, completely believable. There are no dated mannerisms making Butterfly coy and the opera sentimental; this Cio Cio San is smart. Kaduce also approaches the role vocally in a less-is-more tradition. The power is there (with a couple minor pitch problems), though there is none of the typically Italianate over-dramatization. One experiences this Butterfly’s tragedy rather than just pitying her. Tears may not be forthcoming; you have been given such a powerful sock in the gut. This is, thank goodness, not a comfortable evening.

Martin Nusspaumer’s Pinkerton offers elegant legato which we have grown to expect less and less. Looking very handsome in uniform, his heated sexual anticipation is never vulgar, always respectful of his bride. This is an unusually sympathetic Pinkerton who feels true remorse. With Sharpless’s constant reminders as he grapples with the situation he has created, it is no wonder he runs away. His gloriously sung "Addio, fiorito asil" makes it clear that this opera is most powerful when each character has a tragic experience.

This includes the richly sung Suzuki of Caitlin McKechney whose memorable contributions to the trio and Flower Duet show a performer of equal caliber to the leads. Suzuki could easily be considered opera’s most noble character. She fully understands what is happening. When Pinkerton’s ship arrives, she temporarily believes that Butterfly’s prayers have worked and caves into her mistress’s fantasy. McKechney’s return to reality is shockingly painful.

Sharpless might be opera’s warmest male character but Todd Thomas does not stop at likeability. He never shies from honestly and intently confronting Pinkerton for his lack of responsibility, though he too runs away by not finishing the reading of Pinkerton’s Dear John letter (what compassionate human being could under those circumstances). The tenderness he offers sorrow cannot hide his awareness of the impending doom.

Of the comprimarios, the large voiced Bonze of Jeffrey Beruan is the most memorable though this is not an easy work for non-leads to make an impression.

Vanessa Isguien in the second cast makes a startling debut with the company and in the role. A young performer ready for the big time, hopefully she won’t repeat huge roles like this before she has fully matured. But in spite of rushing the music a few times, this is a full voiced soprano perfectly suited to this material who approaches it fearlessly. Her Pinkerton, John Pickle, is equally well groomed for the role with a big voice which he has no trouble controlling. There could be a tendency to over sing but this could certainly be a choice of interpretation, thus giving Pinkerton an arrogance that can make him less likeable.

Though Madama Butterfly contains some of opera’s most beautiful and familiar music, and requires truly fine singers, this production makes clear that without significantly gifted actors, its power will never be completely realized.

On the design side, this production is a marvel. The set sits far upstage and leaves seemingly little playing space. The house and the pathway around it have an almost primitively rustic feel that is unlike most stagings of late. Again, as usual, less is more. Allen Charles Klein’s costumes created for a 1984 Florida Grand Opera production have an opulence that now seems rare. They are direct and intoxicating yet never outrageously ornate. The same could be said for Kenneth Yunker’s lighting, particularly effective when silhouettes convey action in the bridal chamber.

And all is guided by the fine director Mark Astafan whose unladen approach gets to the point. His concentration on such subtleties as the weathered flag and Butterfly’s honest physical affection towards Suzuki offer quiet power. For once Butterfly’s entrance does not feel like the grandeur of Turandot’s. Astafan removes potential cuteness from this human drama.

Then best of all we get a conductor whose love for the piece is evident but at no time wallows in familiarity. Quite the contrary; some of the tempos are not expected and as a result our concentration becomes more intense. The tempo of the Humming Chorus is rarely taken this slowly and movingly.

Probably the greatest compliment that could be given to this fine production is that if you have said to yourself, “Oh no. Not another Butterfly,” the approach is going to be welcomed. To those wanting to bask in familiarity, you might not feel so relaxed. First timers will be forced to recognize that opera is not the entertainment they might have expected; they will be required to give of themselves. Thank you, Florida Grand Opera for being willing to shake us up.

Jeff Haller



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