MUSIC REVIEW | Minnesota Opera sets an elegant “Madame Butterfly” aflight


I’ve recently become hooked on a poignant blog called Old Loves. The blog is simply a series of photos of past celebrity couples, presented with little or no commentary. It’s compelling not only as a time capsule (Jim Carrey dated her?), but as a testament to the eternal spring of hope. These are people leading lives that are not conducive to long-term relationships, and yet they keep trying—dating and marrying again and again and again, hoping that this time, against all odds, those promises will be kept.

Puccini’s classic opera Madame Butterfly would make an apt soundtrack to that blog. The eponymous teenager, a Japanese girl preparing to marry an American naval officer, is warned by everyone in her family that the match will end in ruin—but she determinedly chooses to take the risk, to gamble that her fiancé Pinkerton is a good man who will never leave her. Act One is about the budding of that hope, and Act Two is about its tragic end.

It’s typical of operas to carry the audience through hour-long declarations and dramatizations of events that could be succinctly summarized in a tweet (see related blog post about the Minnesota Opera’s crazy night on Twitter during Madame Butterfly‘s opening), and this opera depends even more than most on investing the audience in Butterfly’s life, bringing us into her private world of eternal—well, almost eternal—hope. Puccini did his end of the job, with a luminous score that ranks with Tristan and Isolde as one of classical music’s great epics of romantic longing, and the Minnesota Opera does its end too in its current production: a production that, like its title character, wraps ragged yearning in elegant trappings.

First and best credit has to go to conductor Michael Christie—incoming music director of the Minnesota Opera—and his sterling band, who deliver a reading of Puccini’s score that’s supple and entrancing. Christie is particularly strong in the opera’s deliberately slow stretches, including the famous interval in Act Two when Butterfly waits wordlessly for her lover to return. I could have done with a bit more vigor in the climaxes—both from the orchestra and the singers—but Christie is appropriately patient with the crucial sections of a score that well-rewards his attention to detail and tone.

As Butterfly and Pinkerton, Kelly Kaduce and Arturo Chacón-Cruz are well-cast as both singers and actors. (They alternate in their demanding roles with Yunah Lee and Brian Jagde.) Kaduce’s Butterfly is strong but tender, an introverted woman who seems to be singing almost to herself. Chacón-Cruz’s selfish Pinkerton is believably infatuated with his young bride, conving her—and maybe, temporarily, himself—that their love will last. (It doesn’t hurt that Chacón-Cruz physically resembles Ricky Gervais, whose David Brent in the original Office was Pinkerton-like in his obliviousness to his own self-centeredness.) A strong impression is also made by Mika Shigematsu (alternating with Victoria Vargas) as the tirelessly devoted servent Suzuki.

The weak link in this production is Neil Patel’s unimpressive set, about which the best that can be said is that it doesn’t distract. That’s fine, since the last thing you’ll want is to be distracted from this compelling interpretation of one of the world’s most justifiably famous operas.

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