On October 15, Southern Ontario Lyric Opera (SOLO) opened their 2023/24 season with Madama Butterfly at the Burlington Performing Arts Centre. I am not surprised that this particular masterpiece by Puccini is one of the most performed operas worldwide. The sold-out crowd at this performance alone bears witness to its popularity. The music is gorgeous, the story is heart wrenching, and the setting is exotic. But what always strikes me about this opera is that very little happens in it; there are no marching armies, no vengeful gods and goddesses, no huge dance numbers, and no massive scene changes. There is a lot of waiting in Butterfly… long periods of waiting. The strength of the opera itself lies not in action, but in the ability of the singers and musicians to use Puccini’s brilliant score to interpret the deep emotions and cultural nuances of the characters. SOLO’s production captured this beautifully.
From the moment they stepped onstage, Teiya Kasahara 笠原貞野 embodied Cio-Cio-San. They convincingly portrayed the vulnerable and child-like Butterfly, while also unleashing inner passion when singing her tour de force “Un bel di” (which was met with thunderous applause before the aria was even finished). Kasahara seamlessly navigated Puccini’s vocal marathon, using their lush liquid lower tones, while also showcasing their thrillingly high register. Ernesto Ramirez was a solid Pinkerton. In fact, the warmth and beauty of his voice was so compelling that, at times, I needed to remind myself that Pinkerton is a misogynist. Ramirez’s and Kasahara’s “Bimba dagli occhi” was unequivocally romantic, but Ramirez’s quips and subtle acting reminded the audience that this tenor is no hero. Alexandra Beley’s portrayal of the loyal Suzuki was well acted and beautifully sung. Her velvety mezzo combined with Kasahara’s coloratura made for an enchanting “Scuoti quella fronda di cilegio”. Chris Dunham’s Sharpless was a delight. His powerful voice had a chameleon-like ability to express his character’s compassion for Butterfly and his bewilderment regarding her naivety. As the moral barometer in this opera, Dunham’s outstanding dramatic abilities made for a strong character around which other players revolved. Corey Arnold’s Goro was a manipulative matchmaker who provided much needed comic relief in this depressing story, his pure tenor voice adding musical sparkle to any scene he was in. Michael Robert-Broder’s Prince Yamadori was a regal presence, while his Imperial Commissioner’s reading of the marriage contract in Act One demonstrated that, with a lush voice like Robert-Broder’s, even the singing of a document can be music to the ears. Chad Louwerse’s “Lo Zio Bonzo” was vocally commanding and full of dramatic flair. Bravi to all the supporting actors including Blake Woodhouse (Registrar), Terri-Lyn Patterson (Mother), Loralee McGuirl (Kate Pinkerton), and Nicolas Alley (Trouble) who was simply adorable as Butterfly’s son.
Under the baton of Artistic Director Sabatino Vacca, the orchestra captured all the emotion in Puccini’s score, with particularly fine work by the woodwind section. Director Gabriel Graziano’s subtle and elegant direction made for a simple and compelling retelling of a classic, while his set design and Chris Humprey’s lighting created a charming backdrop. The back lighting of the shoji added visual impact to both the seduction scene and Butterfly’s death. Although the costumes had a sometimes jarring mix of historically accurate and modern pieces, the female chorus members looked gorgeous in their vibrant kimonos—as did Kasahara and Beley—while the entire choruses rendition of “The Humming Chorus” was breathtaking.
With productions like this, Madama Butterfly will continue to remain a fan favourite.