Opera is the grandest spectacle on the stage, and the Florentine takes this to heart as it opens its 75th season with Madama Butterfly. The production is a work of sumptuous indulgence, from the set to the costumes to the layers of music.
Puccini’s story is set in an idyllic estate near Nagasaki in Japan. An American naval officer, Lt. B. F. Pinkerton, has contracted with a marriage broker to take the young, beautiful Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly) as his bride. Perfect for his mercurial and self-indulgent temperament, the lease on the house and the marriage can be cancelled with 30 days notice. But while he sees the union as a dalliance while he bides his time until he finds a “real” American wife, Butterfly takes it seriously. She falls madly in love with Pinkerton and renounces her ancestral religion in favor of Christianity, causing her family to disown her. When Pinkerton abandons her, she is left alone, save for her faithful maid Suzuki and the child that Pinkerton sired, whom she names Sorrow.
When Pinkerton returns to claim the child with his wife Kate in tow, Butterfly is heartbroken. After kissing Sorrow goodbye and telling him that she does this for his future, she takes her own life, using the same dagger that her father used to take his. “It is better to die with honor than to live without honor,” she sings. It is advice Pinkerton should take.
All the performers have exceptional vocal talents. Robin Follman as Butterfly soars, capturing innocence and lost innocence. Jennifer Hines as Suzuki is her loyal companion, sometimes slipping into zealousness — there is an amusing scene between her and Goro, the marriage broker, in which she chases him around the yard with a rake in hand. Joel Sorenson as Goro is appropriately terrified of the diminutive servant. Guido LeBron acts as Pinkerton’s whispered conscience, admonishing him from the start to be careful in the role of the Consul Sharpless. You rather wish that Sharpless was sharper and able to do more for the heartbroken Butterfly than shake his head sadly.
The set designed by Paul Shortt is both grand and intimate. He creates the idyllic setting for Butterfly and Pinkerton’s love with infinite care, creating a place that is both home to them in the brief happiness of their love and later the scene of Butterfly’s heartbreak. The costumes are gorgeous, from Kate’s 19th-century jacket and bustle to the kimono robes of Prince Yamadori, a later suitor of Butterfly’s.
In none of Puccini’s works is the male lead likable, but there is not greater cad in all of opera than Lt. B. F. Pinkerton. His callous treatment of Butterfly, even after joyous times and sweet words, reminds all of us to beware of the insincerity of shallow people. VS
The Florentine Opera presents Madama Butterfly at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts until this Sunday. If you miss this production, they will be mounting Semele at the Pabst Theater from February 27 through March 1. 414-291-5700 or www.florentineopera.org for tickets.