Review: ‘Madama Butterfly’ at Annapolis Opera

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Annapolis Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts is a beautiful marriage of music and singing. Directed by Braxton Peters, with music conducted by Ronald J. Gretz, it brings together excellent staging, scenery, and lighting to highlight Puccini’s tragic classic tale.

Elina Calenos. Photo courtesy of Annapolis Opera.

Eleni Calenos commands the stage as the title character, Cio-Cio-San, bringing passion and determination to the role. She has a powerful vocal and physical presence to her arias. In “Un bel di vedreno” one can almost see the smoke from the imaginary ship she pictures pulling into the harbor, her hands reaching out as if to touch it. It can be painful to watch as her faith and hope struggle against the reality of her situation, especially beginning Act III and seeing her standing in the same place as she was at the end of Act II. Several times she collapses weeping on the stage.  During her final aria, “Con amor muore”, her desperation is evident in her voice and very body, as she frantically moves about the stage. She brings calm and dignified though, to her last action, a fitting end for someone so mistreated.

Kathryn Leemhuis plays Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San’s servant, with great love and loyalty, her singing and movement playing out the conflict between hope and reality. During great emotional scenes, she falls to her knees in anguish. She particularly shines when paired with Calenos, the servant’s skepticism balanced against the mistress’ optimism. Their duet “Il cannone del puto” is full of light and joy, singing of a hopeful reunion as they spruce up their home. It is delightfully enchanting; by the end, the stage is covered in flower petals.

Jason Slayden brings a youthful innocence to the role of Pinkerton; even though what he does is inexcusable even in 1904, when the opera takes place, let alone in 2017, watching him woo Cio-Cio-San it is hard to be angry at him. He and Calenos make a beautiful couple. During their extended duet, beginning with “Bimba, bimba, non piangure”, their love feels genuine. They touch each other throughout the end of Act I, him caressing her and she nearly melts into his chest. Much later, he fills his aria  “Addio, fiorito asil”with remorse and sadness for what he’s done. Even though he is onstage for only a short time, his presence is felt strongly through the opera.

Jacob Lasseeter plays Sharpless the Consul with a quiet strength, caught in a difficult situation. Trying to read Pinkerton’s letter to Cio-Cio-San in “Ora a noi” the sadness of his task is clear in his voice; he cannot continue for too long, with her joyful interjections putting him off. He balances caution and restraint against Slayden’s love and desire in their duet “Amor o grillo”; unfortunately, he cannot stop the tragedy to come.

Anthony Webb plays Goro, the marriage broker, with an air of menace about him. He usually stays at the edges of the stage, overhearing conversations and occasionally commenting on the action. He provokes a violent reaction in Cio-Cio-San, who leaps on top of him and threatens him with a blade.

Spencer Adamson is filled with a quiet longing as Prince Yamadori, keeping his dignity when responding to the rejection of  “Yamadori, ancor le pene”.

Jarrod Lee has a brief but memorable appearance as the Bonze, projecting power and rage in “ Cio-Cio-San”. It is a truly shocking assault that breaks up the celebration.

Emily Zarrilli is adorable as the child Sorrow, and, although too young to speak, is a good performer as well. She hugs and plays with Calenos, reaching out for props. She lays on her blanket when taken inside, and walks around when needed.

Lorraine Vom Saal has done a wonderful job as Costume Designer, creating outfits that hark back to early 20th century Japan and America. Cio-Cio-San stands out in the group of geishas with her red kimono. Sharpless wears a full white suit in Act I, changing to a brown one later. Pinkerton looks dashing in both a white Navy suit, as well as a dark blue one with a jacket. The Imperial Commissioner (Matthew Frieswyk) wears a black kimono with a red sash and black cap.

Robert Parker and Steve Cosby’s set definitely evokes Japan, with sliding rice paper doors on the far left leading to the indoor part of the house, and a wooden bridge on the right heading offstage. A few stools and pillows are scattered throughout for sitting. In Act II, a teak bureau holds a crucifix and framed photo, while an American flag hangs from one of the doors. It’s a fascinating mixture of Western and traditional cultures.

Lighting Designer Michael Klima helps to reflect the mood and time of the opera. In “Viena la sera”, the lights dim to a light blue, showing that night has indeed fallen. At the start of Act III, the lights go up gradually, as though dawn was breaking.

Braxton Peters has done an excellent job directing. The performers all work well together, moving around the stage and each other seamlessly. Their actions feel like a natural part of the opera, adding more dramatic tension to the story. Ronald J. Gretz beautifully conducts the Annapolis Symphony Orchestra, blending the music perfectly with the voices. The “humming chorus” of “Coro a boca chiusa” for instance, sounds wonderful over the strings. All the elements come together for a powerful, tragic story told through glorious music and singing.

Running Time: Approximately 3 hours, with two 15-minute intermissions.

Madama Butterfly played March 17 and March 19, 2017, at Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts – 801 Chase Street, in Annapolis, MD. For information on and tickets to future events, call the box office at (410) 280-5640, or go to their website.

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