Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Minnesota Opera's "Madama Butterfly"

On Saturday night, my parents, my sister-in-law, and Joshua and I went to Saint Paul to attend Minnesota Opera’s production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”, the final presentation of Minnesota Opera’s 2011-2012 season.

I dislike the music of “Madama Butterfly”. It is one of two mature Puccini operas I dislike—“Turandot” is the other—and I dislike the score because I find much of it sickly-sweet and unduly obvious. “Madama Butterfly” lacks the freshness and inspiration of “La Boheme” and “Tosca”, two Puccini works that preceded it, and it lacks the sophistication and subtlety of “La Fanciulla Del West” and “Il Trittico”, two Puccini works that were to follow.

Mine is a minority view. Persons with more than a little authority—Virgil Thomson and Herbert Von Karajan among them—have identified “Madama Butterfly” as Puccini’s finest achievement. Many others have defended, eloquently, Puccini’s tale of East-meets-West without proclaiming it Puccini’s outright masterpiece.

I find “Madama Butterfly” to have a weak musical argument, a weak musical argument further watered down by an undue emphasis on orchestral color and unconvincing (and discomfiting) orientalism. The score is fundamentally all about “atmosphere”—and only a great orchestra and a great Puccini conductor can bring the atmosphere of the score fully to life.

Minnesota Opera did well by the score, all in all. The orchestra played well, and Michael Christie (who next season will become Music Director of Minnesota Opera) conducted the score capably. This was about as fine a musical presentation of “Madama Butterfly” as one might hope to hear in an American regional house.

The production, the company’s own, had been unveiled in 2004. (Over the last eight seasons, it has been rented by several other companies in North America.) The late Colin Graham directed the original production; one of his assistants was on hand to direct the current revival. The production is a spare one, using shifting Japanese screens as its primary visual device, but it has color and beauty and simplicity in its favor. It is one of the most stage-worthy “Madama Butterfly” productions I have ever seen—it presents the drama cleanly and without affectation, yet includes plenty of freedom for different artists to shape the drama to their own individual strengths.

Minnesota Opera has double-cast this season’s “Madama Butterfly”, offering four performances with a first cast and four performances with a second cast. We saw and heard the first cast—and it should not be assumed that the first cast of this “Madama Butterfly” production is better than the second cast, as persons affiliated with the company have made clear to Minnesota Opera patrons. Indeed, the second cast may be superior to the first, as some insiders have asserted.

The Cio-Cio-San on Saturday night was American soprano Kelly Kaduce, a native of Minnesota. (Kaduce also sang Cio-Cio-San when the production was new eight years ago.)

Kaduce is a convincing stage actress. Her physical portrayal of the young Japanese girl was very fine.

Kaduce, however, does not possess a major voice. There is nowhere near enough color and weight in her voice to create a compelling musical portrait of Cio-Cio-San. The result is that the audience witnessed a physical portrayal of high finish and much accomplishment—and a vocal portrayal that was bleached, wan and tepid. Kaduce, however hardworking and dedicated an artist she may be, simply does not possess the vocal chords necessary to get her in the door of an international-level house; hers is destined always to be a regional career.

Kaduce was at a disadvantage all night because the Pinkerton, Mexican tenor Arturo Chacon-Cruz, DOES possess a major voice. Chacon-Cruz is not yet a polished artist; he is rough around the edges in his vocalism, and an actor of little subtlety. However, his instrument is first-class, possessing a distinctive timbre, a distinctive ring and loads of color.

Chacon-Cruz already has an important European career. Over the last five years, he has appeared in numerous second-tier European opera houses such as those in Cologne, Hamburg, Lyon, Naples, Stockholm and Venice—and recently he has been moving up to first-tier houses, singing major roles in theaters such as Staatsoper Unter Den Linden and Teatro Alla Scala. If Chacon-Cruz continues to polish his voice and musicianship and stagecraft—and if he does not blow out his voice early—he will become an important fixture at international-level houses for the next fifteen or twenty years.

The smaller roles were beautifully sung and beautifully portrayed. Mika Shigematsu was an excellent Suzuki and Levi Hernandez an even better Sharpless.


Minnesota Opera had an excellent 2011-2012 season. We caught four of the five presentations—Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte”, Massenet’s “Werther”, Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” as well as “Madama Butterfly”—and all four were performed to a standard that would reflect credit upon any regional company in North America.

We skipped the fifth presentation, the world premiere of “Silent Night” by composer Kevin Puts, an opera that recently won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize For Music. I doubt we missed much. Persons whose opinions I respect thought that the non-threatening, anti-Modernist score of “Silent Night” was pure musical twaddle and should have been laughed off the stage. (The award of a Pulitzer Prize is meaningless these days, since Pulitzer Prizes have been declining assets for decades and now serve primarily as certifications of mediocrity or acknowledgements of longevity.)

From a repertory standpoint, the 2012-2013 season for Minnesota Opera does not look as promising. I dislike Verdi’s “Nabucco”, I dislike Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” and I dislike “Turandot”, all three of which have been announced. A world premiere adapted from John Patrick Shanley’s play, “Doubt”, has also been announced, as has Ambroise Thomas’s “Hamlet”. We may attend “Hamlet”, but I wish the company had announced Thomas’s “Mignon” instead. “Mignon”, a much finer work than the composer’s “Hamlet”, is a work sorely in need of revival.

And why three Italian operas, yet no German works? I think that is a blunder.


Other than presentations of Minnesota Opera, opera performances in the Twin Cities are limited in number.

For years, University Of Minnesota Opera Theatre has been the other primary opera resource in the Twin Cities. Opera Theatre mounts two full-scale productions each academic year; the productions are generally of very, very high quality.

We missed Opera Theatre’s “Cosi Fan Tutte” last autumn because of my grandmother’s illness, and we shall skip Opera Theatre’s upcoming world premiere of an opera by a University Of Minnesota professor, a production scheduled to open tomorrow night and run through the weekend.

I do not know what is in the works for Opera Theatre for next academic year—Opera Theatre’s productions for 2012-2013 have not been announced as far as I know.

For the last few years, the Minnesota Orchestra has entered the opera arena, presenting one opera in concert each season during the summer months. This summer, the Minnesota Orchestra will present a concert performance of Verdi’s “Rigoletto” under Andrew Litton.

We probably shall skip the Minnesota Orchestra “Rigoletto”. As a general rule, we do not attend concerts during summer months. Further, it seems pointless for the orchestra to present such a well-known work as “Rigoletto” in concert.

Next season, a new local enterprise will enter the operatic fray: Minnesota Concert Opera. Minnesota Concert Opera will offer performances in the new Cowles Center For Dance And The Performing Arts in downtown Minneapolis.

Minnesota Concert Opera has announced three operas for its premiere season: Bellini’s “I Puritani”, Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” and Handel’s “Giulio Cesare”.

I have no idea when we shall first make our way to the Cowles Center to catch a Minnesota Concert Opera presentation. Repertory for the company’s first season is not much of an attraction for us.

Hans Pfitzner’s “Palestrina”, had it been announced, surely would get us in the door.

No comments:

Post a Comment