“Madama Butterfly” tells a turn-of-the-20th-century story of an American Navy officer taking a child bride in Nagasaki with the “easy philosophy” to someday marry a “real wife” in the United States.
Having worked as a geisha after her family lost their fortune, she clings to hope for years of her American husband returning after he took to the sea again. When he eventually does, she finally comprehends the reality of her situation.
Though the opera as a whole portrays a still-relevant story of global cultural collision and pseudo-colonialism that played out thousands of times over, the drama plays out as a domestic tragedy.
As the title character, Cio-Cio San, soprano Eleni Calenos brought tireless power to another of Puccini’s lead roles after inhabiting Mimi in last season’s Opera Santa Barbara production of “La Boheme.”
The composer and a vocalist are a perfect match. Her power and energy are remarkable. Her movement and the affect she can portray simply through posture are a pleasure to listen to and watch.
Cio-Cio San’s loyal housemaid, Suzuki, is sung by mezzo-soprano Audrey Babcock, who offered the audience and lead character comedic realism, sincere devotion and profound compassion. She was essential to several of the peak moments in the performance — solo, duet with Calenos and trio with the male leads.
The male leads included tenor Harold Meers as B.F. Pinkerton, the entitled American Navy man who “marries” Cio-Cio San with the full intention of taking her now and leaving her later; and baritone Luis Alejnadro Ruiz as American Consul Sharpless, the sole voice of genuine male honor in the story. All of the vocals were sharp enough, but the roles seemed to be more about character.
A simple but flexible set of four tall rice-paper screen panels that slid open and shut, and a few pieces of furniture, depict the house in which all of the action takes place.
A simple wooden box of mementos that Cio-Cio San brings with her to the marriage contains her entire history, including the sabre with which her father acted to die with honor instead of to live with shame.
But changes of seasons — and of lives — transitions from night to day, winter to spring, one generation to another, from hope to despair, are depicted via artful projections that move across screens as a backdrop to the action.
Opera Santa Barbara brings robust production values and high-quality talent to the local stage. Based on the strength of vocal and instrumental performances, creative staging as well as the vision of OSB’s artistic and general director, and conductor Kostis Protopapas, I look forward to the remaining performances this season: Daniel Catán’s “Il Postino” in March and Charles Gounod’s “Romeo and Julie,” both at at the Lobero.
Click here for more information about Opera Santa Barbara and its season.
— Local arts critic Judith Smith-Meyer is a 24/7 appreciator of the creative act.