Giacomo Puccini was a devoted admirer of American playwright, director, and producer David Belasco—so much so that he adapted two of his well-known plays into operas. While Puccini also admired Belasco’s style of quasi-naturalism, his own talent lay in unabashedly manipulating the heartstrings of the audience through music, which he did quite effectively in his opera, Madama Butterfly, based on Belasco’s play. However, both the play and the opera—the story of an American naval officer who recklessly weds a young geisha in Nagasaki, only to abandon her—presented Japan not as it really was, but in simplified terms and aesthetics that turn-of-the-century Western audiences imagined it to be. This reliance on theatrical imagination, coupled with the intense psychological drama and Puccini’s lyrical heart-tugging score, has seemed an open invitation to a gamut of visual styles in the thousands of productions since the opera’s premiere in 1904.
Knoxville Opera’s Madama Butterfly last weekend has added one more take on this classic with a new production conceived by Maestro Brian Salesky and Carroll Freeman and designed and staged by Freeman. Vocally and musically, this Butterfly soared. Theatrically, though, it was—despite good intentions—a confused jumble of ill-conceived staging, design incongruities, and visual metaphors gone awry.
Continuing his successful vocal casting from last season, Salesky has once again found some great voices. One of those amazing voices was Korean soprano Jin-Won Park singing Cio-Cio San (Madam Butterfly). Park’s voice seemed to have adequate power without betraying a hint of stress or strain, although some vocal complexity might have been useful in selling Butterfly’s emotion. Her “Un bel di” at the beginning of Act II was lovely, as it should be given its iconic status among operatic arias.
I also greatly admired the voice of Joel Burcham as the young naval officer Lt. B.F. Pinkerton. His mid-range was solid and rich and his top range was strikingly clear and seemingly effortless—and all with plenty of warmth and passion. The dramatic side of Pinkerton, though, is full of subtle contradictions and is not necessarily an easy one for acting singers. Burcham’s Pinkerton didn’t seem to be fully fleshed out, nor were some of the character’s essential motivations apparent.
Mark Womack, as Sharpless, the American consul, gave perhaps the most solidly interesting and visually dramatic performance of the evening, one full of body language and subtlety. His baritone was as warm and dependable as his character seemed to be. Mika Shigematsu was dramatically strong as Cio-Cio San’s servant, Suzuki, although Freeman’s staging seemed to minimize her importance to the story. A similar fate befell the role of the marriage broker, Goro, sung well by Scott Joiner. On the other hand, the Bonze, Butterfly’s uncle and priest—sung with strength and conviction by Jesse Stock—was transformed into a symbolic and psychological character, literally hovering over the girl’s existence as a reminder of Japanese tradition.
Opera, as if we need to be reminded, is also theater—and it is on the theatrical side that this production lost its way. Freeman, as designer, had envisioned a somewhat abstract Butterfly, one in which visual symbols of Japan represent the conflict within Cio-Cio San between her old Japanese life and religion and her love for Pinkerton and Western ideals. Instead of abstraction, though, the stage became uncomfortably stuffed with a collection of props and scenic elements such as flowers, swords, photographs, a “rising sun” circle image, and a gong inside a massive upstage torii gate, all apparently meant to symbolize the force of Japanese tradition. Flying shoji screens which represented Cio-Cio San’s house, and which either obscured or revealed action as needed, were a unifying element, but their movement proved a great distraction to both the action and the music.
Freeman’s staging and the symbolic use of iconic elements as visual metaphors might have been more successful if they had been subtly or suggestively delineated by lighting instead of being broadly and too-brightly illuminated. Unfortunately, with the exception of a few special-effects moments, the over-lighting of scenes seemed to suck the energy and life right out of the action and presented a substantial, perhaps insurmountable, hurdle for the singer’s dramatic attempts.
Knoxville Opera has made great strides in populating its stage with great young singers with exciting futures. And it is to be commended for its willingness to use visual abstraction as a production alternative to rented or acquired backdrop sets. Unfortunately, in this case, good intentions were thwarted by execution.