The Berkshire Opera Festival triumphs in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly

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Inna Los as Cio-Cio-San in Puccini's Madama Butterfly at the Berkshire Opera Festival. Photo Ken Howard.
Inna Los as Cio-Cio-San in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at the Berkshire Opera Festival. Photo Ken Howard.

Musically, this summer in the Berkshires, there was one event that was truly exciting, in the sense of something important that was entirely new…or almost, as the people behind it made entirely clear. Several weeks ago I had the pleasure of interviewing the two impressive and engaging founders of the Berkshire Opera Festival, Jonathon Loy and Brian Garman, who promised to “bring fully-staged opera back to the Berkshires.” And this they have just fulfilled with a production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, that was in a way as perfect as an opera performance can get, considering that opera is the quintessence of imperfection among art forms—or perhaps that should be said of art itself. Musical and theatrical ability that was both solid and brilliant, imagination, good taste, and deep knowledge and understanding of the work and its authors flowed together with all the concentration and energy aroused by a new, make-or-break enterprise to create a performance that can only be described as an object lesson in how to perform opera—and a thrilling and moving one newcomers, casual opera-goers, and opera-makers alike can appreciate. The Berkshire Opera Festival has, within less than a week, made itself indispensible.

These three performances of Puccini’s masterpiece did not, as it happened, take place in a vacuum. Our beloved Hubbard Hall Opera Theater presented Madama Butterfly only two weeks before with its radically different aesthetic—a swan song for its outgoing founding Artistic Director, Alexina Jones—and the Bard Music Festival and Summerscape devoted their powerful resources to Puccini and his World this year, presenting, most significantly, the predecessor to Butterfly, Iris (1898), by Pietro Mascagni and Luigi Illica, the same librettist who collaborated with Puccini on Butterfly a few years later. Butterfly did not receive much attention at the festival itself; however, an important essay by Arthur Groos, “Madama Butterfly between East and West,” was included in the annual scholarly publication, as well as an English translation of the production notes of Albert Carré’s Paris premiere of the opera. Unfortunately Bard conflicted with Hubbard Hall, and I was unable to attend HHOT’s production. The Problematik ruminated at the Festival was profoundly instructive, but it failed to shake me in my scepticism about Puccini as an artist, as much as I appreciated their superb performance of my favorite, Il Tabarro. There is too much of what I perceive as the wrong kind of manipulation in it. I’d rather turn myself over to the no less suspect hands of Shakespeare, Berlioz, Verdi, or Wagner. Theater is, after all, manipulation, and we all love it, at least civilized people. Who is to say an opera-goer is right or wrong, when he gets weepy and or squirms in his seat? This apart, I came away from my immersion in Bard with a much better understanding of and respect for his craft as a dramatist and a composer—in his case one indivisible from the other. He worked hard and with reverence towards the several generations of local composers who preceded him in his family. If his effects were occasionally meretricious, it was balanced by a certain sense of good taste, bolstered by his ambition to achieve success with a quality product.

All these issues come to a head in Butterfly. His later evocation of an American atmosphere in La fanciulla del West followed a path less-trodden than the fashionable giapponnismo of Iris and Madama Butterfly. It was indeed a fashion—in a literal sense, affecting the style of dress for both women and men from Paris to San Francisco, as well as south of the Alps. When japonisme penetrated the arts, it left not only a superficial taste for Japanese objects, fabrics, and artwork, but profound influences on harmony, the rendering of pictorial space, and theatrical genre. Neither Mascagni nor Puccini were shallow or cheap in their application of Japanese elements in their music and drama. Iris most definitely benefits from the composer’s restraint—the bedrock of Mascagni’s musical language is European. Puccini, at least in his Brescia revision, exercised a similar, if less general restraint. Japanese effects are more pervasive in Butterfly, but, like everything in Puccini’s art, they are used with a specific expressive purpose in mind. These exotic elements become transformed from the local color of the wedding scene, by the brief, but impressive intrusion of the Bonze, into the heredity Cio-Cio-San attempts to deny in her marriage to Pinkerton, which gains a quasi-monumental emotive power, as she comes to the decision to follow her father’s fate.

Weston Hurt as Sharpless and Jason Slayton as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly. Photo Ken Howard.
Weston Hurt as Sharpless and Jason Slayton as Pinkerton in Madama Butterfly. Photo Ken Howard.

Puccini and his librettists treat the arrogant westerner’s condescension towards a traditional eastern culture critically. They place these attitudes firmly in the mouth of the despicable Pinkerton. Even Sharpless is able to rise above prejudice and see Butterfly as a human being. Japanese and American ways are separate, active forces, although both are seen through a European filter, and one hardly possessed of anthropological rigor. However, these orientalizing entertainments are not without a certain worldly sophistication and humanity.

If Puccini achieved greatness, it is as a man of the theater. His music is inseparable from drama, above all in character and action. If one tears them apart in dissection, their quality is diminished. Above all, I found myself admiring his economy and construction. Puccini consistently threw out inessential scenes—even his librettists’ favorites—and honed everything to a dramatic focus. In Butterfly no scene or aria is too long, and nothing wanders off track. Even when we listen to a recording made during the composer’s lifetime, ostensibly to enjoy the art of Farrar or Caruso, we get a sense of the snippet’s place in the long dramatic arc.

Loy and Garman chose Butterfly as a beloved classic of outstanding quality that would attract a broad audience of opera-lovers. While it is a staple in the repertoire, it is not shopworn, like La Bohème, and its craft is as seaworthy as the Abraham Lincoln herself.Its best qualities are rarely as completely and intelligently realized as in this splendid production.

In the living space of the house Pinkerton has bought on a hill overlooking Nagasaki the wall colors are cool, offsetting the wooden frames of the movable screens, and the warm hues of the elegant floral strips which decorate a paneled wooden semicircle atop a raised platform, which indicates the foyer to the house, with the altar of the household/family god at the center, and provides both a stage for the women to be inspected by Pinkerton, or a convenient center for the more ritualistic episodes, e.g. the wedding. This design was simple (and, most likely, affordable), flexible, and conducive to richly contrasting scenes of Japanese formality and more casual or, occasionally, furtive arrivals and departures by the Americans. This handsome set was the work of New Yorker Stephen Dobay, who will be most familiar to Northeasterners for his work for Odyssey Opera and Boston Midsummer Opera.

Inna Los as Cio-CIo-San and Lily Shepardson as Sorrow, her boy. Photo Ken Howard..
Inna Los as Cio-CIo-San and Lily Shepardson as Sorrow, her boy. Photo Ken Howard..

The equally impressive costumes, by Metropolitan Opera veteran, Charles Caine, not only conveyed the traditional Japanese look of the opera, but enhanced the singers’ exceptional acting—the transformations of Butterfly’s garb, including a kimono, a trailing bridal sash, western-style suits, and undergarments were especially eloquent details in the action. Mr. Loy decided to change the period of the story from the late 19th century to the 1960s. This wasn’t an arbitrary manipulation, but a thoughtful adjustment to put the story in more meaningful context. The ’60s were a decade in which the Japanese were especially enamored of Western, especially American style and popular culture, open to assimilating it in their home country, and prone to seeing in it a liberation from the strict Japanese conventions, which cast the well-born Cio-Cio-San in the degrading position of a geisha. This updating was handeled quite subtly, in such a way as not to jolt the expectations of the audience. Buttrfly’s appearance in Act II in a Western suit of a distinctly ’60s stamp came as a surprise—one which made her blind adoption of Western ways which would never serve her especially poignant. …and I still half-expected Kate Pinkerton to appear with a parasol in a flowing Victorian frock! In fact she wore a suit rather similar to Butterfly’s, a coiffure (perfectly designed by Beckie Kravetz) that conjured up the suburbs of Long Island and New Jersey, and, yes, a rather common, downtrodden look—in contrast to her husband’s naval spiff, still intact after three years of deception and heavy drinking.

Inna Los as Cio-Cio-San and Sarah Larsen as Suzuki. Photo Ken Howard.
Inna Los as Cio-Cio-San and Sarah Larsen as Suzuki. Photo Ken Howard.

I am only sketching out the visual elements most relevant to the drama, these, like the acting, were full of telling details, which are not as common or as psychologically germane as in this Butterfly. This attention to detail pervaded Mr. Loy’s direction and the performances he elicited from his admirable cast, who not only sang magnificently, but actually looked their parts to perfection—a sign of the care that went into the casting.

Goro, the marriage broker, was neither sung nor acted as a caricature by Eduardo Valdes. Wearing a western suit with a Japanese accent, he went about his disreputable work with fussy meddlesomeness and the requisite sleaze. His strong tenor voice had its lyrical side, attractively sustaining Puccini’s melodic lines and effectively projecting his character. Jason Slaydon, as Pinkerton, reinforced his regular good looks—straight out of an Edwardian advert for collars or shirts—with a gorgeous, powerful tenor, consistent in tone from top to bottom, which, underneath his clubman’s aplomb, conveyed all the passing clouds of insouciant self-indulgence, lechery, colonial arrogance, and cynical willingness to exploit local customs, which he despises, for his own ends. Pinkerton, as despicable as he is, requires not just a character singer, but a proper lead, who can carry Puccini’s seductive melodies, and Mr. Slaydon was more than equal to this. Some of the tenors and sopranos at Bard this summer showed sings of having studied the recordings of Caruso and other early Puccini singers. As commendable as this may be, Slaydon approached his role straightforwardly and sang in his own modern way. Sharpless, the sensitive voice of decency and consideration, provides a welcome relief from the antics of Pinkerton and Goro simply as a character, yet there was something about Weston Hurt’s performance that made one miss him when he left the stage—a deep humanity conveyed by his magnificent voice, rich and dark below, lyrical with tawny highlights in the upper middle and upper ranges, and his totally committed acting. Not without his Yankee cynicism and world-weariness, Sharpless’s slightly shabby brown suit, the pinned-up sleeve of a man who has lost an arm, and his intimate relationship with his pocket flask gave him a winning vulnerability. Hurt’s perceptive and elegant phrasing, his thoughtful interpretation of the text, and perfect diction made me want to hear him sing Lieder—the greatest Lieder—and I understand this forms a significant part of his repertoire.

Benjamin Taylor was a strong presence as Cio-Cio-San’s wealthy suitor, Yamadori, dressed in a dark Western business suit with a token Japanese jerkin over his shoulders. (Yamadori has been costumed in this way in past productions, going back at least to Albert Carré’s 1908 Paris premiere at the Opéra Comique.) John Demler and Katherine Maysek also aquitted themselves commendably as the Imperial Commissioner and Kate Pinkerton.

Sarah Larsen began her important role, Suzuki, with perhaps a little less vocal focus than the rest, but she soon settled in and gave us a strong and sympathetic account, in which she told Goro off in a most satisfyingly spirited fashion. The lower register of her glowing mezzo provided a rich and dusky contrast to her more brilliant upper register. Her loyalty and deep sympathy for her deluded mistress balanced Sharpless’s humanity most effectively.

The Moldovan soprano, Inna Loos, took on the title role. She has had considerable experience in major European houses, including the Deutsche Oper, Berlin, where she has sung Liu in Turandot, and the Vienna State Opera, where she has sung Desdemona in Otello, Micaela in Carmen, and Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte. The VSO has awarded her the important Eberhard-Wächter-Medal for her performance of Alice Ford in Falstaff. She made her American debut singing Cio-Cio-San with Opera New Jersey, going on to sing the role with Opera New Jersey, Opera Grand Rapids, the Michigan Opera, and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. She Has also sung at the Metropolitan Opera. It was absolutely clear that she not only knows Madama Butterfly as thoroughly as one can, she has interiorized it to the point that she can do almost anything she wants with the role with complete command. She totally inhabited her character, making her almost shocking innocence entirely convincing, without any condescension or inappropriate irony. In Act II she carried us with her, fascinated and absorbed, as she played out her delusion, her determined resistance to the bitter truth, and her agonies leading to her suicide. The power of her performance was extraordinary, but her interpretation was entirely in the mainstream, and all for the better. Her singing was also in the classical tradition, recalling many of the great sopranos who have sung the role, like Victoria de los Angeles and Monserrat Caballé. The beauty and power of her gleaming upper register and rich lower area place in the higher ranks of sopranos singing today, and she is an actress with great gifts of penetrating a role and convincing us that it is real. I was very much moved by her performance, as I was by the performance as a whole. Even Sorrow, the silent part of Cio-Cio-San”s child, was exceptionally portrayed, with touching dignity, by Lily Shepardson.

<p>The End of Madama Butterfly at the Berkshire Opera Festival. Photo Ken Howard.</p>
The End of Madama Butterfly at the Berkshire Opera Festival. Photo Ken Howard.

Conductor Brian Garman was equally rooted in Puccini’s musical idiom. Beginning steadily in the opening fugato, he kept a strong hand on pace throughout, fused as it was with the dramatic action on the stage. He balanced this with a good deal of flexibility of tempo, and, whether elicited by the expressive needs of a singer or Puccini’s markings, his ritardandi were a joy to hear. They opened up the drama and the music most wonderfully, and his clear, efficient stick technique was impressive. The textures were open and colorful. The enthusiastic playing of the hand-picked orchestra, the foundation of a continuing ensemble, recalled chamber music. This was inevitable in any case, since the pit of the Colonial Theater can’t contain a full-sized orchestra, and it was necessary to used a reduced score. Garman wisely chose the version of Ettore Panizza (1875-1967), born in Buenos Aires of Italian parents, who, along with Arturo Toscanini, was a mainstay at La Scala, Covent Garden, and the Metropolitan Opera. The  textures and colors of the score, as interpreted by Maestro Garman, were splendid, and balances, as I heard from the front of the balcony, were excellent. This was the best-sounding classical performance I have heard at the Colonial, which is not very friendly to that repertoire in general, and Garman and his superb cast and fine orchestra can take credit for that. The Colonial now seems pretty decent for Italian opera, although its harsh and hard upper sonorities won’t go away. The text comes through very well, if the singers have good diction, as did Messrs. Hurt, Slaydon, and Valdes, and Ms. Los much of the time.

As I said above, imperfection is part of the essence of opera, but the Berkshire Opera Festival’s Madama Butterfly was, in its way, perfect. It’s more accurate to say that it was a perfect example of how opera should be produced, with deep advance consideration, extensive rehearsal as a team, full, really serious attention to drama, down to the smallest details, and first-rate singers and musicians. In its debut production, the Berkshire Opera Festival has met the highest standards established in the Berkshires. It provides one of the missing pieces in Sergei Koussevitzky’s vision of a complete festival of the arts. We have no lack of concert performances, and James Levine’s operas with the TMC Fellows were, as delightful as they were, briefly rehearsed toss-offs, Jonathon Loy and Brian Garman have established their institution in one coup. It remains only for the community to give them all the support they need to accomplish their glorious work.

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