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Opera review: 'Madama Butterfly'

Sarasota Opera’s singers take flight for 'Madama Butterfly'

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  • | 4:45 p.m. February 12, 2017
Laurel Semerdjian as Suzuki and Joanna Parisi as Butterfly. Photo by Rod MIllington
Laurel Semerdjian as Suzuki and Joanna Parisi as Butterfly. Photo by Rod MIllington
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Sarasota Opera opened its 2017 winter season Saturday night with a scenically and vocally beautiful production of Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” David P. Gordon's stunning set, which has not only served this company well, but has also been rented by a significant number of other discerning opera companies, was enhanced beautifully by Ken Yunker’s magnificent lighting, giving us beautiful sunsets, starlit skies and the charming sense of a Japanese landscape, complete with so many flowers their scent almost wafted to the last row.

Joanna Parisi as Butterfly and Antonio Coriano as B.F. Pinkerton. Photo by Rod MIllington
Joanna Parisi as Butterfly and Antonio Coriano as B.F. Pinkerton. Photo by Rod MIllington

Victor DeRenzi, artistic director of the Sarasota Opera, was in the pit leading the Sarasota Opera Orchestra, a large ensemble that gathers here every winter from points as far away as San Francisco and Santa Fe, to give this company its very own orchestra — and a good one it is. Yes, there was a bit of ragged playing at the start, but it was opening night, and the ensemble hasn’t been together that long. Give them a few performances, and they’ll be their usual spot-on selves.

“Madama Butterfly” has become one of opera’s classic works, with audiences clamoring for it time after time. “Un bel di,” is probably one of the favorite soprano arias of all time, and when it’s sung in the context of this great Japanese-American tragedy, it’s even more moving.

By the time we hear that famous aria, we’ve gotten to know Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly), quite well. We know she’s only 15 when she’s married to Lt. B.F. Pinkerton of the U.S. Navy. A scant three years later, at the age of 18, she kills herself, because he’s legally married an American woman and is too much of a coward to tell Butterfly himself that he also wants to take the child born to her back to America, leaving Butterfly with nothing.

Antonio Coriano as B.F. Pinkerton. Photo by Rod MIllington
Antonio Coriano as B.F. Pinkerton. Photo by Rod MIllington

Joanna Parisi, the Butterfly in this production, has a large, mostly beautiful voice that is powerful and lustrous. But she misses the nuances of the grace, the fan fluttering, the walk and, most of all, the kneel, that would make her distinctly Japanese. Her “Un bel di” was well sung, as was just about everything she did vocally, bringing tears to my eyes up until the climax with her Addio to her little boy before she takes her life. Unfortunately, she let the emotion of the music and story get the better of her, pushing her voice beyond beautiful and almost screaming at the poor little tyke, who was amazingly brave in the face of all that ranting and raving.

Her handmaiden, Suzuki, was sung by Laurel Semerdjian, whose gorgeous voice, almost a contralto rather than mezzo, was clear, clean and well produced. It was her offstage sobbing when she realized Butterly was about to kill herself that resonated most with me in that climactic scene. It was heartbreaking.

Pinkerton, the cad, was both well acted and well sung by Antonio Coriano. He tends to push his already large voice at times, but for the most part, he sang with both passion and tenderness throughout the opera.

Cesar A. Mendez Silvagnoli took the important role of Sharpless, the U.S. Consul in Nagasaki. His acting was quite believable, but his voice, which has a wooly sound, was hard to hear over the orchestra. And the stalwart bass, Young Bok Kim, made a terrifyingly angry Uncle Bonze, who not only disowns Butterfly, but also gets her entire entourage of friends and family to do the same, leaving her alone and lonely.

Sean Christensen, a studio artist with Sarasota Opera, turned out a suitably slimy Goro, the marriage broker (and possibly the tallest one I’ve ever seen), while smaller parts, including The Prince Yamadori (Suchan Kim) and Kate Pinkerton (Rachelle Moss), were taken by other studio artists and apprentices.

The chorus (apprentice artists) and principals often had a hard time chasing the orchestra, but again, it was opening night and tempos, along with rough edges, will be smoothed out.

Act I of
Act I of "Madama Butterfly." Photo by Rod MIllington

Sarasota Opera has a beautiful production in its “Madama Butterfly,” but the stage director, John Basil, fell very short in his interpretation. He seemed to miss the importance of the Japanese side of this work, leaving the chorus and Japanese principals with little to do and very little in the way of authentic Japanese movements. Doing that did away with the grace and elegance of this culture and its importance to the opera. His Americans, except for the regal Kate Pinkerton, were suitably oafish. But so were his Japanese characters, so they became more caricatures of a culture than the real culture Puccini wrote so eloquently into his music.

Puccini was a real man of the theater. He knew every nuance, every turn of the fan, and he wrote it into his score. It’s a shame the stage director didn’t understand the composer.


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