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IU Opera Theater: Madama Butterfly

Saturday night’s performance of Puccini’s tragic "Madama Butterfly" ended with steadily rising applause as the curtain call progressed with extra punctuation at the appearances of the guest tenor Adam Diegel who sang the role of Pinkerton the young American officer and soprano Jing Zhang who sang the title role of the young girl the officer weds and abandons. Then the audience moved to a standing ovation. It was a fitting ending to an evening in which IU’s Opera Theater more than lived up to both the opera and the theater in its name.

The opera work was all there. The orchestra played Puccini’s music with real voluptuous flair from the gentle almost comic moments to the darkly dramatic one. Every singer on stage distinguished him and herself with beauty, variety, and sheer musicality. David Effron from the pit was always actively encouraging as well as leading his players and the singers.

But, it was the theater work that especially distinguished this production. Guest director Nicholas Muni’s singer actors clearly knew who they were, what they were doing, and why. I happened to have opera glasses Saturday night and spent a fair amount of time looking from the leads to the characters who weren’t singing. Every glance confirmed the cast’s total involvement.

Although the entire production impressed me, I do need to mention some particular moments. The appearance of Butterfly’s disapproving uncle, Miroslaw Witkowski, walking along a red runner on the stage apron as the stage darkened with spotlights further suggesting that the real impact of his curse was in Butterfly’s own mind, was dramatic. The comedy of act two as Butterfly mocks the rich suitor Yamadori, Jong-Hun Cha, was a very neatly handled counterpoint to the serious drama. Naturally, every audience waits for Butterfly’s song about the joy of her returning husband, "un bel di." Saturday night’s Butterfly, Jing Zhang sang it beautifully, but she made it more than a lovely song, she made it a story. As she finished, conductor David Effron shot her a quick salute and the audience clapped so loud and long that in many other opera houses, we’d have heard an encore.

In the final act of "Madama Butterfly," Pinkerton does return, but he’s brought Kate, his American wife. Kate sung by Angela Brower, doesn’t know about Butterfly, and Pinkerton doesn’t know that he and Butterfly have a son. This is a tough scene to stage. In some productions, Kate is mostly a menacing, nearly off stage figure. In Nicholas Muni’s direction she’s very active. The tension between Kate and Pinkerton as she learns of the child is palpable. Her sadness that she is the unwitting source of Butterfly’s sorrow is meaningful and her decision, however jingoistic it may seem, to take the child and raise it as the American that Butterfly really wants, is tender at its root.

Butterfly’s death is always a moving moment and there’s room for a variety of stagings. Frankly Muni’s presentation with Butterfly kneeling facing the audience at center stage while her son played with a replica of Pinkerton’s ship off to the left seemed less dramatic than some, but when the red runner on which her angry uncle had paraded earlier was pulled across in time with her fall it was quite a moment.

Throughout Kenneth Pereira was excellent both vocally and dramatically and as he played the difficult part of the deeply conflicted US Consul Sharpless. Jason Wickson was about as slimey and menacing as the marriage broker, Goro as any I’d hope to see. Abigail Peters as Suzuki had some lovely moments. Her duets with Butterfly were beautifully shaped.

The IU Opera Theater’s production of Puccini’s "Madama Butterfly" has final performances Friday and Saturday, April 13th and 14th. You can find an interview with Jing Zhang and Abigail Peters on our Arts Interviews page .

George Walker

After completing an M.A.T. degree in English at Indiana University, George Walker began announcing for WFIU in 1967. Along with regularly hosting classical music shows, he interviews artists and reviews plays and operas.

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