Death Before Dishonor.
One of my favorite things about going to the opera is that no matter your station in life, for a little while you get to feel super fancy. Parking lot attendants in tuxedos, greeters in white gloves to open the entrance doors for you, and due attention being paid to even the smallest of details, it all helps transport you to a different place and time. This was by no means my first opera, but it was my first time to see one at the Harrison Opera House and for the most part I was very impressed with the facilities. My wife and I were seated in the orchestra level, but for the opera these are not necessarily the best seats in the house. This is because a staple (and a welcome one) of most opera productions these days are “supertitles,” meaning that above the stage there is a screen on which the English translation of the lyrics is shown in real time. So, if your Italian is a little rusty, just read the synopsis printed in your provided guide and follow the supertitles and you are all set.
Unfortunately, in the rows of the orchestra section nearest to the stage it is difficult to see both the words and that action on the stage at the same time. During intermission we took the opportunity to investigate the mezzanine and both decided that we would have preferred to be seated there. Or in one of the boxes on the side, but I’m pretty sure that to sit in those you have to have a monocle or those opera glasses like you see in movies. The acoustics in the Harrison Opera House were superb, so no complaints at all there.
Madama Butterfly is a classic tale of unrequited love. B.F. Pinkerton, an American sailor, uses a broker to buy a 15 year-old Japanese girl to marry. No kidding. He signs a 999 year contract on both a house and the marriage, with the option to renew or not renew every month. His new bride, Butterfly, forsakes her religion (and apparently common sense) in deference to her new beau and is disowned by her family and friends. But she has her new American husband and she is DEEPLY in love with and devoted to him. He leaves again on his ship (not knowing that Butterfly is pregnant) and Butterfly pines away for him for 3 years, expecting him to come back at any moment. Everyone mocks her: that dude is not coming back. But she shows them three years later when he does come back! Hey, who’s that lady with you, Pinkerton? Oh, that’s your new wife? When Pinkerton finds out he has a son (appropriately named “Trouble”) he sends his new wife over to pick him up from Butterfly so he and new wife can raise him. Butterfly says ok, and then she kills herself. Now, there are plenty of nasty villains in operas, but B.F. Pinkerton has to be one of the least sympathetic characters ever penned.
Unrequited love is a timeless theme. But I found myself meditating on current events as I watched Madama Butterfly. I thought about the horrible tragedies in Japan as I watched the actions of Butterfly, thinking about how little information we would hear about the severity of the situation, particularly at the nuclear plant. Much like Butterfly, they seemed to have convinced themselves that everything was fine when it obviously wasn’t. I think it must be a cultural shame/honor thing that I don’t quite understand. Death before dishonor. The other timely theme was the characterization of Pinkerton, who Puccini clearly intended to be the embodiment of America. Before I put on my bow tie and headed to the show, I turned on the TV and watched us shoot missiles at Libya. We may seem great and all, but don’t be too surprised if you look out in the harbor later and our ship is gone. And we knocked up your 15 year-old (metaphorically). It wouldn’t be the first time.
I was very impressed with the caliber of performers assembled by the Virginia Opera. Without going into great detail about the individual resumes of the performers, suffice it to say that the entire cast has been showered with awards and accolades by the opera community. The lead role of Butterfly, as portrayed by Sandra Lopez, was executed with near flawless precision. During intermission I heard the wife of the patron next to me ask her husband what he thought of the production so far. Not surprisingly he said he was anxious to hear Butterfly’s signature aria (“Un bel di…”) and would reserve his judgment until he heard it in the second act. As we clapped for Ms. Lopez at the conclusion of the aria I heard the guy say she nailed it, and I agree. Brian Jagde as Pinkerton was equally effective; he sang beautifully and I did not like him at all, which is just how the role should be played. I thought the two stand-out supporting roles were Levi Hernandez as U.S. Counsel Sharpless and Magdalena Wor as Suzuki, Butterfly’s servant. And making his opera debut at the ripe old age of 4 was Isaak Mihalap as young Trouble, who sat perfectly still throughout his scenes. I’d like to meet his parents; I have two boys and couldn’t get them to sit still in a straightjacket.
As impressed as I was by the performers, I equally enjoyed the set design and stage direction. The set design consisted almost entirely of a half dozen movable screens and a few boxes and pillows: think opera by IKEA. The sets were “changed” in fluid motions by the performers and were executed with precision. The minimalist set design allowed focus to remain on the principles, as it should do.
The Virginia Opera’s staging of Madama Butterfly is a delight. Generally regarded as the opera most performed in the U.S., it was great to see such a well performed and innovative production right here in Norfolk. This is definitely not a “light” opera, and it has always been one that I was reluctant to recommend to people trying opera for the first time. This was only the second opera for my wife and she found the first act a little slow, but by the second act she was fully into it. Given the opportunity I would recommend this production by the Virginia Opera to both opera pro and novice alike. Bravo, Virginia Opera.
Additional performances of Madama Butterfly at the Harrison Opera House in Norfolk will be on March 23, 25, and 27. The production will then move to George Mason University’s Center for the Arts on April 1 and 3, then on to the Carpenter Theater in Richmond on April 8 and 10. For tickets and such, click here.