Some soar, some glide in Madama Butterfly

Review: Soprano shines, but wardrobe issues detract from Syracuse Opera's performance.

In staging its final performance of the year, the Syracuse Opera brought Madama Butterfly to life yet again.

Certainly the Opera has enough experience with Butterfly to perform it more than adequately; Madama Butterfly is the Opera’s most-performed show in its history.

Still, the show was not without its faults.

Madama Butterfly is loosely based on Pierre Loti’s novel Madame Chrysanthéme, which tells the story of a naval officer arriving shortly after the opening of Japan and falling for a conniving Japanese girl. In Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 opera, the roles are slightly reversed; when Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton rents a house in Nagasaki and marries 15 year-old Cio-Cio San, he leave her shortly after their wedding for three years while she waits for him with their son. When he returns with a new American wife, Cio-Cio handles her grief in the most operatic of ways: by committing suicide.

Photo: Doug Wonders
Despite wardrobe setbacks, the cast performed strongly in Friday's performance.

Mihoko Kinoshita, leading the cast as Cio-Cio, sang her Soprano role strongly. When "Un bel dì," Butterfly’s famous aria about the day her husband returns home, drew to a close I wished to hear more from Kinoshita, who undoubtedly knew the role by heart after performing Cio-Cio in Vancouver, Michigan and Arizona.

Patrick Miller, who starred as Pinkerton, impressed far less. Symphony Syracuse, returning to accompany the opera, frequently drowned out his tenor.

Together, the two made a strange-looking couple. Dressed in a white naval outfit, Miller appeared in his early 20s while Kinoshita, who should have looked like a teenager, donned a series of unflattering outfits that made her seem like she was in her 40s. The couple had no chemistry together, and in the end it was difficult to imagine why Pinkerton would marry Cio-Cio, and was irritating that Cio-Cio kept waiting for a flighty boy.

The show ambled along with the aid of its supporting cast, which featured a range of talent. Sarah Heltzel gave my favorite performance as Suzuki, Cio-Cio’s maid. Of the entire cast, Heltzel appeared most comfortable onstage, and shuffled around pouring tea and adjusting the doors on the adorable Japanese house built as part of the set. Jason Ferrante lent his magnificent tenor to Goro, the matchmaker who arranges the marriage between Cio-Cio and Pinkerton. Ferrante provided a few good laughs during an otherwise tragic tale, but had the unfortunate circumstance of being dressed by the wardrobe department in an outfit that a hippie Gandalf would wear.

The errors in wardrobe accompanied other technical difficulties. Periodically, the caption screen would turn blue or black. Near the end, the screen gave up on its job entirely and  as Butterfly prepared for her suicide, viewers were left to rely solely on the onstage action. Had Miller been a better actor, this would not have been a problem; unfortunately, when Pinkerton arrived and discovered Butterfly dead, he belted a line of grief using a blank facial expression. Had I not know the story, I could have surmised a number of emotions -- relief at the release from a clingy ex-wife, shock at the discovery of his son sitting near a body, admiration that Butterfly stayed true to her convictions -- without arriving at Miller feeling genuine grief that Butterfly died.

Though these errors occurred, the Syracuse Opera’s Madama Butterfly is worth a look. It's not everyday a talented Soprano like Kinoshita sings "Un bel dì" in the Civic Center, and the technical errors and wardrobe mistakes are insignificant in comparison to feeling Cio-Cio’s grief.

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