opera by Giacomo Puccini
IU Musical Arts Center and Butler's Clowes Hall
IU NOv 4-6, Butler Nov 11-12, 2016
IU’s production Madama Butterfly has closed at the Musical Arts Center and this weekend moves to Butler’s Clowse Hall for Friday and Saturday performances. Arthur Fagen leads the soloists, chorus and IU Philharmonic in an accomplished performance of the demanding score.
Puccini’s opera was based on a tragic romance between a Japanese girl and an American naval officer in a novella by John Luther Long and more directly on David Belasco’s drama from the story. The opera presents a dignified, conservative and almost fairy tale Japan. Ironically, Puccini’s opera appeared in 1904. This was the time of the Russo-Japanese war over Korea and Manchuria with Japan coming onto the world stage as a formidable modern industrial and military power.
An opening weekend out of town led me to take in last Wednesday’s dress rehearsal at the MAC. Designer Steve Kemp’s very Spartan set design works in a variety of interesting ways. The bare stage has strategically placed raised rectangles leading in from the left rear to the front. Many were sort of mini garden sites with black edging and green centers. Generally characters came from the raised area, but they could move left and right across the front.
Puccini’s text includes a graphic description of the house that the U.S. Navy’s B.F. Pinkerton is leasing. In many productions, there’s a full sized dwelling and a walk through. Kemp has chosen to construct a doll house sized piece complete with all the flexible and fragile moving parts. The house and later Pinkerton’s bride Cio San both come with ninety-nine year leases, but there are convenient escape clauses.
At the back of the stage are a mountain landscape made with a series of three shaped plastic curtains. Patrick Mero’s lighting does very nice things with them during the different day parts of the drama and the gradual shifts from day to night that Puccini had been so struck by in Belasco’s original staging.
Stage director Leslie Koenig with Puccini’s own words gives us a bit harsher version of
Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton than I’m used to seeing. Right away it’s emphasized that he sees his marriage to Cio San as a temporary one before he has a real marriage with an American wife. It’s also pointed out that he’s had other women in other ports. Although Pinkerton and Sharpless the Consul share a drink together and toast America, the Consul’s words and his body language are full of concern and foreboding.
Pinkerton’s bride Cio San is one of the great tragic characters of all opera with her terribly misplaced innocent faith. When she asks Sharpless if birds in America nest only every three years, because Pinkerton promised he’d be back with the nesting it would take a heart of stone not to tear up.
Wednesday night’s dress rehearsal was still a work in progress. There were a couple of pauses and some rehearsal during the intermission, but clearly the show was well on its way to opening night. Leads were strong with powerful solos and duets throughout. Walter Huff’s chorus was personable on stage and vocally very satisfying. Linda Pisano’s costumes captured the color and fragility of the drama.
The final tragic scene has a bit of a surprise from designer Steve Kemp. As Cio San plunges the ceremonial knife into her bosom and the now guiltily distraught Pinkerton throws himself to the ground, the mountainous backdrop collapses onto itself…the set itself a part of the tragedy.
The IU Opera Theater production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly will be at Clowes Hall on the Butler campus in Indianapolis for performances Friday Nov 11 and Saturday Nov 12 at eight
At the theatre for you, I’m George Walker