The Pacific Symphony’s production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” which opened a three-performance run Thursday night at Segerstrom Concert Hall, is one of the most satisfying the orchestra has presented. The singing is excellent, the orchestra poised, the staging, or semi-staging, for the most part lets the actors get on with their business. The evening, though still too long, becomes yet another opportunity to admire the genius of this composer when he has a subject he can sink his teeth into.
Music director Carl St.Clair and the orchestra took up the task of presenting one opera a season several years after Opera Pacific, Orange County’s only major opera company, shut down in 2008. It was a good thing to do and has turned out to be a popular thing to do.
But it comes with a set of challenges. Structurally, Segerstrom Concert Hall is not an operatic theater; there’s no room for lavish scenery. Nor is the Pacific Symphony set up as an opera company; it has to become one, and quickly, once a year. Semi-staged opera, which is essentially partially staged or, if you will, simply staged, with the orchestra performing onstage and the singers in front, became the logical answer.
“Madame Butterfly” proves to be an uncomfortable opera to sit through in the age of #MeToo. Not that it was ever a joy ride, but the abuse that Cio-Cio-San endures at the hands of Pinkerton, her culture and the law — with the consul Sharpless looking the other way, at least for a time — is almost squirm-inducing now. Stage director Eric Einhorn has chosen to underline some of these meanings. I felt a few of those underlinings were heavy-handed.
Einhorn adds a silent prologue, for instance, in which Pinkerton, practically drooling, chooses his bride-to-be from a line-up of scantily clad geishas. Similarly, Einhorn turns Pinkerton into little more than a slovenly, lascivious drunk in Act One (he guzzles a beer from a bottle as the national anthem is heard, and he wears dingy jeans and a peacoat rather than a naval officer’s uniform). Puccini at least seems to suggest that Pinkerton has a hint of decency and some genuine regard for Cio-Cio-San, especially with the love duet that ends the act. But never mind. Einhorn is well within his rights to interpret the drama as he sees fit and his take is certainly not out of left field.
The assembled cast is a good one, each one comfortable, and it would seem seasoned, in their roles. Yunah Lee sings the role of Cio-Cio-San with great confidence. Her tone is golden throughout her range, singing loud or soft. She also would appear to be indefatigable, her voice showing not a bit of wear throughout the demanding evening. She is a fine and even spirited actress, too, who nevertheless doesn’t call undue attention to herself.
John Pickle is her Pinkerton. He’s got a solid tenor that doesn’t wear on the ears. He generally doesn’t push it too hard but has plenty of power and heft. His acting skills allowed him to put over Einhorn’s conception (and perhaps his own) with minimal fuss.
Luis Ledesma brings a burnished baritone to his dignified and human portrayal of Sharpless. Sabina Kim is the faithful Suzuki, well-blended with Lee in duets. Joseph Hu scampers and hoots as the marriage broker Goro. The Pacific Chorale, singing up in the choral terrace, luxuriates in its assignment.
The scenery, by Cameron Anderson, is rudimentary but effective, though it is sometimes amusing to see St.Clair toiling through the picture window in Nagasaki. The costumes, by Kathryn Wilson, do the job they’re supposed to, though I would have liked to see Pinkerton in official naval dress. St.Clair conducts an attentive orchestra. He punctuates firmly, paces unobtrusively, teams with the singers nicely. With the orchestra onstage, rather than muted in a pit, you hear all the colors and details in Puccini’s orchestration, a fine thing. If occasionally the orchestra blankets the singers, that is the price you pay. Segerstrom isn’t always the best place for solo singers anyway; without a proscenium a voice can sometimes sound unfocused.
“Madame Butterfly” has always seemed too long to this listener, and this admirable production was no exception to the rule. I think it’s because Cio-Cio-San looks doomed from the outset, a deer in headlights. During the second half of “Butterfly” everything is geared to the inevitable, oozing with tragedy, and it just goes on and on. Puccini writes music to die for, but it takes a while.
Timothy Mangan is a contributing writer for Arts & Culture at Voice of OC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.