The Princeton Festival opened its second season with what some might consider a dangerous choice — one of the most popular and most frequently performed operas in the classical repertory, Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” Scheduling an opera as popular as “Butterfly” often tempts a company to look for gimmicks that will set its production off from others. Fortunately, the Princeton Festival resisted that temptation and instead treated its audience at the Lawrenceville School’s Kirby Arts Center to a well-wrought and straightforward reading of text and music, an approach that made more dramatic the clash of cultures that is at the heart of this opera. The remaining two performances take place Saturday, July 1, and Sunday, July 9.
From the moment the curtain went up on the Saturday, June 24, opening night performance, revealing the set by Wally Coberg, the audience was treated to an immediate sense of what was good about this production. The entire opera takes place in a hill-top house of translucent paper screens and wood framing, with adjustable panels that can change the size and openness of the rooms. Outside the house are gardens and a view of the water that lies at the bottom of the hill. The design of the house may be a familiar one, but it is lovely to look at and creates a sense of tranquility and harmonious view of this world, as do the traditional costumes by Evan Ayotte, that heightens the jarring events that take place in the opera. These include a clueless male chauvinist American naval officer, who marries a young Japanese girl (Cio Cio San) and sails off to America, promising to return. When he does come back some three years later, he brings with him his American wife. Cio Cio San lets him have their child and kills herself (with the knife the emperor had given her father to kill himself).
Conducted by Richard Tang Yuk and directed by Steven LaCosse, this production brings out several elements that are not always apparent in larger productions. The reduced orchestra size keeps the angular clashes in the lyrics from being obscured by Puccini’s lush orchestral writing and strengthens the sense that “Butterfly” is not just a story of a single overly-trusting woman betrayed by a philandering man, but the story of a clash between two cultures.
The quality of the production was matched by the quality of the singers. The men were particularly strong. Michael Hayes sings the role of Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. Hayes has to his credit leading tenor roles with many major opera houses. His diction may not always have been crystal clear, but his singing was, and he never scooped or wobbled or committed other sins tenors have been known to indulge in. Douglas Perry as Goro, the marriage broker, also a tenor, and baritone Grant Youngblood as Sharpless, both distinguished themselves with clear, beautiful singing and the ability to act with their voices.
Cio Cio San was sung by Jiyeun Cholee, an American-trained Korean soprano. Although at first there seemed to be a danger that she would sing with too much vibrato and would end up pushing too hard, her voice took on a decided calm as the opera progressed. The role of Cio Cio San’s maid, Suzuki, is an important one if the juxtaposition of the two cultures is to seem something more than quaint, and Mexican mezzo-soprano Grace Echauri handled the role well.
The orchestra is made up of musicians from Princeton, New York, and Philadelphia, many of whom played in the orchestra for the Princeton Festival’s “Sweeney Todd” last summer. Despite the reduced size of the string section, the orchestra produced Puccini’s trademark lush sound, and Tang Yuk is also to be commended for his pacing of the piece and the fluid direction that makes it sound easy (which I have been assured is not).
Diction was on the whole clear, but even those audience members who know Italian probably welcomed the supertitles. A couple of opening-night glitches, presumably unintentional, are likely to be smoothed out before the remaining performances. One has to assume that the seating of audience members after the orchestra has started to play is not company practice. And at the end of the first part of Act 2, the house lights went up while the stage lights were still dimming and the orchestra was still playing, thereby destroying the delicate effect the music would otherwise have created.
The opening night audience seemed unusually talky. Perhaps adding to the supertitle, which asks people to turn off their cell phones and pagers, a line that asks them to turn themselves off might be one way of handling the issue.
Madama Butterfly,Saturday, July 1, 8 p.m., and Sunday, July 9, 3 p.m., Princeton Festival, Kirby Arts Center, Route 206, Lawrenceville. Puccini’s opera. $28 to $88. 800-595-4849.