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A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
By Elyse Sommer
With opera directors continually testing new visual interpretations, the beauty of the music is the one constant. Some of these new interpretations raise critics and opera aficionados' hackles; others garner rousing accolades. Sometimes the new stagings get so much attention that the voices and arias seem to be almost overlooked.
The Berkshire Opera Company's Madame Butterfly certainly is new and exciting enough to make a stir just on the basis of its Noh/Kabuki influenced minimalist staging. In his program notes, director Gregory Keller explains how his concept evolved from a desire to break the fourth wall created by a curtain rising on a detailed set and "explode both the music and the story out of the box, as Noh audiences have experienced for over thirteen centuries."
Keller's concept is in evidence even as you take your seat with choreographer Paul Chuey and three other dancers in Kabuki makeup and garb on stage executing the slow movements they will repeat intermittently once the performance begins. Since their little pre-opening dance drama is intended to recreate the suicide of Butterfly's father, it serves not just to establish the tone but as an omen for Butterfly's own tragic end. At any rate, it makes for a stunning visual production -- even though Dipu Gupta's scenic design is quite spare, with the primary set piece consisting of a double step platform and a series of ramps that extend the stage around the orchestra pit. Those ramps, as well as the use of the aisles, brings the characters closer to us and makes for a most affecting and memorable new-old opera experience.
The spareness of the staging and the use of the Kabuki makeup and choreography makes the super titles almost superfluous even for those unfamiliar with the story. But even if your taste runs to a more traditionally naturalistic spectacle typified by a Japanese hideaway and flower filled garden, there's the music given its glorious due by a splendid cast that not only sings magnificently but acts well.
Sandra Lopez is a persuasive Cio-Cio San with a gorgeous and varied soprano voice that does full justice to the always thrilling "Un bel di." If she ever plays Butterfly again, however, I'd suggest that she insists on a less unflattering outfit than costume designer Melissa Schlachtmeyer's idea for her faux-Mrs. Pinkerton scenes. John Bellemer brings a mellifluous tenor to Pinkerton and manages to play the part of the macho man who wants his young adoring Geisha and a conventional marriage as well without the sort of swagger that makes it impossible to believe that he's genuinely grieved at the pain he has caused.
Lopez and Bellemer are ably supported by, among others, Mika Shigematsu as the faithful Suzuki and John Fulton whose rich baritone gives double pleasure as he plays both the Commissioner and Prince Yamadori. Ultimately the top honors for the most powerfully acting and singing belong to Troy Cook as the Sharpless, the opera's voice of reason, honor and true compassion -- the counterpoint to both Pinkerton's impulsiveness and Butterfly's misguided optimism.
Finally, bravo to the 31 players in the pit, directed by Kathleen Kelly with her usual verve. With plans for more innovative operas like this to be mounted in two of the area's renovated old theatrical jewel boxes -- the Mahaiwe in Great Barrington and the Colonial in Pittsfield -- I can't wait for next season. But, don't let in the meantime, don't let this season go by without catching one of the all too few performances of this exciting production.