The Maestro’s Edition
The American Center for Puccini Studies
04/25/2010 - & May 1, 2010
Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly
Kay Krekow (Cio-Cio San), Harry Dunstan (Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton), Daniel Sherwood (Sharpless), Arden Moscati (Goro), Tatiana Ishemova (Suzuki), Cynthia Alexander (Butterfly’s Mother), Jenna Koepf (An aunt), Michelle Orhan (A cousin), Erin Twardochleb (The cousin’s child), Brandon Brylawski (Imperial Commissioner/The Bonze), David Chisham (Registrar), Michael J. Begley (Uncle Yakuside/Prince Yamadori), Doris Makari (Kate Pinkerton)
The Puccini Festival Chorus, Dr. Alfred Clark (Piano)
K. Krekow (©David Chisham)
The American Center for Puccini Studies has distinguished itself in the presentation of unusual performing editions of Giacomo Puccini’s operas and has introduced many neglected or unknown Puccini scores to the music loving public. In doing so it strives to preserve an authentic performing tradition of the Puccini operas that may soon be irretrievably lost. These recent concert performances of Madama Butterfly are based on a new edition by ACPS Founding Artistic Director, Puccini scholar, and musicologist Dr. Harry N. Dunstan. Entitled “The Maestro’s Edition”, it carefully restores the exotic Eastern elements of Puccini’s original intent. Since the Premiere in 1904, there never has been a definitive performing edition of Madama Butterfly. Until the time of his death in 1924, Puccini was still striving to produce an edition that would best represent his original vision. “The Maestro’s Edition” combines the best aspects of all the various performing editions and allows us a rare opportunity to hear what this masterpiece must have sounded like at its first hearing. We will consider this new performing edition as a “World Premiere”.
The presentations of the ACPS, while attended by the general public, are in many ways geared for the connoisseurs, the music scholars, the Puccini enthusiasts, and the musically curious. As such they are performed in a rather academic manner…no sets or costumes, no orchestra (and in this case no conductor), and no staging whatever. The audience is supplied however, with extensive program notes and a complete libretto of the current edition. It allows one an intense concentration on the music at hand, and indeed, in many respects, it seemed to me as if I were hearing this beloved warhorse for the very first time.
The first act in particular was filled with lots of unfamiliar music and oriental motifs, especially in the wedding party scene. This scene would have strongly benefitted from having a conductor. It is a nightmare to hold together, even in the professional opera houses, and the performance I witnessed was touch and go the entire segment. It was even more distracting to have Ms. Krekow step out of character, turn her back to the audience, and begin giving cues to the chorus, which still did not help. Whatever the situation may be, and I suspect it is simply one of finances, the ACPS must engage a professional conductor. The complexities of opera performance demand a conductor at the helm to achieve any ensemble cohesion and accuracy. The proof of the pudding was the offstage “Humming Chorus” at the close of Act II. It was one of the finest renditions of this piece I have ever heard, but Dr. Dunstan, who was not required to be onstage at that time, personally conducted this number. It made all the difference.
As a tenor, Harry Dunstan is a true Puccini stylist. He knows exactly how this music is to be phrased and sung. His voice is a mature Lirico-Spinto, ever popular in the Puccini roles, with plenty of the required “squillo”. In fact his top notes had so much reverberation, that it often sounded, due to the presence of so many overtones and upper and lower partials, as if two notes were being sung. Mr. Dunstan is also a superb actor, and more than anyone else on stage, he felt free to gesture and move about articulating the drama at hand. At one point when he confronted the Bonze, it looked as if he were about to toss him into the audience. It produced a well detailed portrait of Pinkerton, which is not an easy job in a concert setting.
Kay Krekow has always been one of my favorite sopranos, and her voice is ideal for the Puccini heroines. She was especially potent in Acts II and III. Her delivery of the great aria “Un bel di” (One fine day) was as fine as any major soprano around the world. It was sung with a gorgeous tone and was impeccably phrased. Her death scene was riveting emotionally, and she seemed to dramatize this scene better than the previous acts. I have reservations however, with her singing in Act I. Puccini writes some finely etched and filigreed vocal lines in Act I to convey the childlike quality of the fifteen year old Cio-Cio San. Most sopranos scale their voices down to create this effect. Ms. Krekow did exactly the opposite, in fact she seemed to open up her voice even more. She sounded more like Princess Turandot than the young Butterfly. At best it was an extremely matronly sounding fifteen year old. She did let go with a magnificent High D flat at the end of her entrance number which was particularly thrilling.
Of special note in this production is the luxury casting of the internationally renowned mezzo-soprano Tatiana Ishemova as Butterfly’s servant Suzuki. Ms. Ishemova, a protégé of the great Italian soprano Renata Scotto, is justly famous for her portrayals of Verdi’s Amneris (Aida) and Azucena (Il trovatore). One seldom, if ever, hears a mezzo of this quality in the role of Suzuki. She looked stunningly regal in her magnificent black gown, and everything she sang made one’s ears pick up with attentive delight. Her voice is full and rich from top to bottom, with none of the jarring register breaks so common in Russian mezzos and sopranos. In fact it is probably better to refer to her as an Italian mezzo. The famous “Flower Duet”, which she sang with Ms. Krekow was exquisite. It was one of the highlights of the concert. There are very few mezzo roles in the Puccini canon, so this was a rare opportunity for not only the audience, but for Ms. Ishemova as well.
Baritone Daniel Sherwood, who sang the role of the American Consul Sharpless, is a young emerging artist. He was not quite on a par with the other principals, but he sang very well and rendered a professionally solid performance. The majority of the other roles were well-filled with students of the Arcadia Vocal Academy, which is the training school of the ACPS. Madama Butterfly – The Maestro’s Edition concludes this season of The American Center for Puccini Studies. I look forward to the next season, which promises more unknown Puccini treasures.
The American Center for Puccini Studies