It's easy to read the story of Puccini's opera Madama Butterfly as a comment on American hubris. And certainly there are echoes of the 19th-century American naval Lieutenant Pinkerton in Washington today. It is equally possible to see the story as a grown-up fairy tale of sorts in which the troubled world of Butterfly herself represents the inner voice so often trampled by the dull passions of daily life.
In each of these scenarios, however, the audience often is left on the outside looking in, witnessing the human foolishness like some all-knowing, yet impotent, Greek chorus. Happily, last night's Toledo Opera production, which was deeply personal, brought the viewer inside the characters' minds and hearts. Disturbingly, the story of these lost souls, writ in primary colors, was also ours.
The opera tells of Cio-Cio San (Butterfly), the girl/woman geisha who marries Pinkerton. She marries for love and forever, he for the adventure of the moment. Pinkerton ships off to sea and for three years Butterfly waits. When he finally does return, it is with an American wife. Butterfly kills herself, not from despair (though she is filled with it), but out of honor and a sense of duty.
Stage director Helena Binder took care to contrast American casualness against Japanese formality. Pinkerton swaggers and sways like some former-day Elvis. Japanese characters move with tightly measured gaits. All this is played out amid towering shoji screens that suggest the patterned fragility of social balance across cultures.
Cio-Cio San would like to bridge those differences, to be reborn, as it were, and embrace the best of each. But still so close to the cocoon that shaped her, she is too inexperienced and too misunderstood. Ultimately, she finds footing in neither world.
Butterfly was gracefully sung by the soulful soprano Ai-Lan Zhu, who portrayed this gigantic stage character with delicate grace.
Her aria "One fine day," was sung with an aching sense of youthful and restless anticipation. If only Butterfly could slow down, then perhaps she could find her balance. Alas, she cannot. Amid all the waiting, things move too fast.
The clear-toned tenor George Dyer was maddeningly charming as Pinkerton, the character audiences, and especially parents of daughters, should love to hate. No wonder Butterfly falls for him.
Baritone Weston Hurt sang the role of the sensible American Consul Sharpless with emotional breadth and vocal nuance. He wants to do right by Butterfly but somehow cannot get through to her. His grief was palpable.
Thomas Conlin conducted members of the Toledo Symphony in a lively and harmonically transparent performance. Lighting designer David Gano alternately bathed the stage in warm pastels and foreboding shadows.
The chorus filled the stage with the precise geometries of a kaleidoscope.
Toledo Opera presents Puccini's Madama Butterfly again next weekend at 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday in the Valentine Theatre. Limited tickets are available. Information: 419-255-7464.
Contact Steven Cornelius at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6152.