Review By Mark-Ellis Bennet

By Mark-Ellis Bennett

Beacon correspondent

Asheville Lyric Opera opened their 2011-2012 season with a stellar performance of Giacomo Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” at the Diana Wortham Theatre last Friday and Saturday. Featuring a world class cast, it comes as no surprise to hear the general consensus among audience members was beyond entirely favorable. Dr. Robert Israel, of Biltmore Forest before retirement, said he has lived inAsheville for 40 years during which time he has been a patron of the arts and has served on the opera’s board of directors. After the performance, the Beacon asked him what he would say to someone who had just seen “Madame Butterfly” for the very first time. “You’re very lucky. It’s a magnificent production. It may be the best I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen it many, many times starting at age six. How can you not like this gorgeous music, and the singers are unbelievably good.”     

For many of the artists “Madame Butterfly” was a return to that particular stage. Jennifer Davison, who played the title role, participated in the Labor Day concert as did tenor Scott Joiner. Davison, who spends most of her time performing in Europe, said she finds the synopsis for the show unattractive, but later discovered unpredictably fascinating layers of depth emerge from her character. “Actually, the drama is so intense it’s spelled out in every [musical] bar of Puccini, so you totally understand this character. She’s multilayered, she’s volatile, and you understand that she has no option. She has to do what she has to do, and she needs so much strength to do it. It’s amazingly touching at the end.”  

Brian Cheney who played Pinkerton, the male lead in “Madame Butterfly,” appeared as Don José inALO production of “Carmen” two years ago. This year, his powerful tenor voice appeared to be even stronger and clearer with precise phrasing, effortlessly delivered. He said, “Jerry Hadley was my mentor. One of the amazing things about working with him is that even though it’s been about four years since he died, I have not studied with another teacher and have stayed consistent with what he taught me. He said if I did my voice would grow and he was right. I’m just so thrilled because it gets easier and easier.” Hadley’s final operatic performance was in Australia as Pinkerton in “Madame Butterfly.”

Maestro Robert Hart Baker and stage director Jon Truitt conducted a brief educational presentation an hour prior to the performance. Baker has been with ALO since its beginning and has observed the company become stronger, more professional and more ambitious in what it is trying to accomplish. “We’re in season thirteen. I still remember our excitement together for La Boheme in season one.”Davison said of Baker, “Oh, he was wonderful! We had such a great time with him. He was so calm, accommodating and competent. If I said I felt a tempo was maybe a little too fast or a little too slow, he was on the ball supporting me every step of the way.”

“Madame Butterfly” is also a return for Truitt who directed Mozart’s “Magic Flute” last year. “‘Madame Butterfly” has several themes in it and one of them is the passage of time where we have two sunsets and a sunrise. Beyond that we have the passage of years between acts one and two. In that time period Butterfly’s circumstances have changed quite a lot and you’ll see that reflected in her environment,” Truitt said.

Skip Helms, president of the ALO board of directors said from what he had seen he thought “Madame Butterfly” was ALO’s best production ever. On the Wednesday before each production the opera opens their dress rehearsal to the public for a reduced price of admission. The rehearsal was nearly sold out, and Helms said it was well received by the community. “The ‘buzz’ is good because Wednesday’s show came off so well. We’ve had a lot of feedback in just the past two days.” David Starkey, ALO general and artistic director said the preview dress rehearsal is a very important educational component of the opera company because it represents an investment in the community’s youth.

Set designer Julie Ross said she found inspiration from researching Japanese rice paper paintings with all their gradations and emphasis on space. “I talked with Erik McDaniel, the lighting designer and production coordinator at Diana Wortham Theatre about raising the boarders to make the stage look larger. Ross said she relates to Butterfly’s vulnerability and sees the opera as being about the kind of choices every woman can understand. “You want to feel like you can depend on somebody, but you don’t know if you really can. In her case it was very tragic.”  

Hair and makeup designer Tricia Zinke, is best known for the hair styling, nail grooming and message services she and her staff provide at Asheville Hair Designs on Hendersonville Road. Her career started with a traveling production of “Up With People” in 1998. Zinke started with ALO as a chorus member for a previous production of “Madame Butterfly” in 2006.   

“Madame Butterfly” opens with the arrival of a U.S. Naval Officer, B.F. Pinkerton (Brian Cheney), who has engaged a marriage broker named Goro (Scott Joiner) to arrange the rental of a house on a hill overlooking the bay in Nagasaki. Joiner’s youthful enthusiasm made him an especially good pick for the role. Gaily colored paper lanterns decorate the property in anticipation of a wedding. Pinkerton is introduced to the butler, cook and Butterfly’s bride’s maid, Suzuki (Dawn Pierce). In an exchange with Sharpless (Mark Owen Davis), the American Consul, we learn that Pinkerton’s plans are for only a temporary marriage until he can find an American wife. Sharpless, who has an awareness of the bride-to-be, warns Pinkerton not to break her heart.

The bride Goro has found for him is a 15 year old geisha girl named Cio Cio San, known also as Butterfly (Jennifer Davison). She falls passionately in love with Pinkerton at first sight, and tells him she has renounced the faith of her ancestors and converted to his religion. Butterfly shows Pinkerton her few treasures which include a handkerchief, mirror, some rouge and little figurines embodying the spirits of her ancestors. Her one “sacred treasure” is in a long narrow case, but she tells him she cannot open it because there are too many people around. Goro quietly lets Pinkerton know it contains a blade used by her father to commit suicide. The wedding is attended by Butterfly’s family. After the brief ceremony her uncle, a Buddhist priest called the Bonze, admonishes her religious conversion and orders the family to renounce her. They abruptly exit through the garden en masse, and Pinkerton is left to comfort his new bride. 

The second act opens in the same setting three years hence. The paper lanterns hanging from the cherry trees are now in tatters. Butterfly, now 18 years old, has spent this time waiting for Pinkerton’s return. Suzuki tells Butterfly they are out of money. Butterfly assures her that everything will be better when he returns. Suzuki doubts he will. The characters were so convincingly portrayed in the first act that by this time the audience was very sympathetic to them. Suzuki overtly cries for Butterfly’s pain, and the audience silently cries for them both.

Sharpless visits Butterfly and it’s revealed she has had a son by Pinkerton. Butterfly later spots an American ship in the bay, identifies it as Pinkerton’s, fantasizes about their reunion and waits all night for him to return. Truitt describes the use of the “humming chorus” as an evocative use of orchestration. It takes place as a candlelight procession of the townsfolk pass through Butterfly’s garden as she waits for Pinkerton’s return. Their humming voices could not be distinguished from the orchestra’s violins. When Pinkerton returns in the third act, it’s with his American wife. By then he has learned about his son and wants Butterfly him to give him up. For her son’s sake she unselfishly agrees. Butterfly sings goodbye to her son, and in a final act of desperation ends her life.  

At curtain call the performers received an enthusiastic standing ovation. When Cheney, as Pinkerton, took his bow the audience simultaneously applauded and booed. P.J. Lowry of Biltmore Park has attended every ALO presentation for the past four years. She said, “‘Madame Butterfly’ is the bestALO production I’ve experienced to date, and the most beautiful opera I’ve ever seen.”

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