The visual is as important as the musical in Princeton Festival’s handsome production of Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” Viewed on opening night, June 16, the opera will be repeated on Sundays, June 24 and July 1, at 3 p.m. at McCarter Theater. The piece is sung in Italian, with English supertitles.
Teamwork lies behind the production of the tragic tale. Director Steven LaCosse imaginatively oversees the scheme of the work. Set designer Wally Coberg transports us to the Japanese town of Nagasaki with a house whose sliding doors permit a multitude of spatial configurations. Lighting designer Norman Coates treats us to colorful dawns and nightfalls that go beyond mere light and dark. Costume master Marie Miller contributes dress that is riveting, authentic, and manageable. (See related article on page 20.)
Conductor Richard Tang Yuk, at the podium, keeps the pacing lively or poignant, as the drama demands. He resists a common impulse to revise the show. In his hands the listener easily detects Puccini’s blend of western and Japanese musical elements. Japanese music opens the opera and recurs. Fragments of the “Star Spangled Banner” appear.
Multiple flawless harp solos by Sophie Bruno Labiner, predominantly in Act 2, are among the memorable instrumental moments. Concertmaster Blake Espy contributes an extended Act 2 violin solo.
The Princeton performance presents the opera in three acts with an intermission only between Act 1 and Act 2.
The action of this well known opera opens as Lieutenant Pinkerton, USN, finds a house where he will live with Cio-Cio San, a geisha known as Madame Butterfly. The two have contracted a marriage. Pinkerton feels that he can terminate the bond whenever he wishes. Cio-Cio San, in love with Pinkerton, takes the commitment seriously. Sharpless, the American consul in Nagasaki, is on hand.
Three years later Cio-Cio San is raising Pinkerton’s child, who is known as “Trouble.” She has not heard from Pinkerton but anticipates his return. Her maid, Suzuki, doubts that Pinkerton will come back. Sharpless tries to convince her that there is no lasting relationship. Pinkerton arrives in Nagasaki with his American wife. They have come to take “Trouble” to America.
Cio-Cio San agrees to give up the child if Pinkerton comes to her home to get him. Before Pinkerton arrives, she mortally wounds herself with her father’s sword. She dies in Pinkerton’s arms after he arrives to take their son to America.
“Madama Butterfly” premiered in 1904 and was not well received. Over a period of more than two years, it was drastically revised. Now it is one of the most viewed operas.
For those who consider opera as drama, Puccini presents a formidable challenge to staging. Casting “Trouble” plausibly is virtually impossible. Sometimes his role is filled by a puppet. A two-year-old cannot be relied on to perform the part of a child his own age. A child mature enough to take on the role may be too heavy for the soprano who plays his mother, Cio-Cio San, to lift and carry.
In the Princeton Festival performance Lionel Burton and Spencer Brown share the role of the child. Opening night, Burton appeared as a well-behaved boy. Soprano Yulia Lysenko (Cio-Cio San/Madame Butterfly) was able to carry him with ease.
Butterfly sings throughout the almost three-hour performance. Lysenko conveyed her dramatic change from demure in the first act to strong-minded in the second. Her unaccompanied singing in the second was memorable for its unforced naturalness. And her rendition of “Un bel di” (One Fine Day), the signature aria of the opera, with its harp solo, evoked enthusiastic applause.
Janara Kellerman was a convincing Suzuki. She communicated directly with the audience. Her warm voice and credible acting earned her a massive ovation.
Paul La Rosa’s American consul Sharpless came across persuasively. He contributed a depiction of an empathetic and complex character with his musical and dramatic talents.
Matthew White’s self-centered Pinkerton was appropriately steely and insensitive. His clumsy handling of a sliding door to Cio-Cio San’s house early in the opera was an excellent clue to the character he was playing.
A number of well-executed vocal duets scattered throughout the opera added to the pleasure.
Madama Butterfly, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Sundays, June 24 and July 1, 3 p.m. $45 to $115. 609 258-2787 or www.princetonfestival.org