Madama Butterfly in Palo Alto

An opera gem, cut and polished…

At West Bay Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly, a large cast squeezed huge drama onto a small stage. And that shoehorning of high passions and choice vocals is often the case for this opera company that dreams big in Palo Alto’s intimate Lucie Stern Theater.

Conductor and General Director José Luis Moscovich stepped onto the stage to greet us, and particularly those new to opera. “Opera is about ritual… but it has just as much debauchery and all of the human foibles that you find on the big screen – and the music is much better!”

Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is one of the half-dozen most performed operas in the world, perhaps because of its deep characterizations, powerful drama and sublime music. Set in Nagasaki in 1904, which was when it premiered, this was an Italian composer’s jaundiced look at brash Americans and Japanese rigidity, and at the unhappy conjunction of social constraint and poverty.

In the hands of the West Bay Opera, this tale of a marriage of convenience and misplaced faith was told with simplicity and dignity.  The tight strings, fresh winds and atmospheric brass filled the hall even though they were reduced from the usual 40 to the 23 that could squeeze into the small pit. Moscovich swept into the prologue with viola and high cello phrases, dense and urgent, and then the other strings joined, painting the dawn of the twentieth century with sharp unease.

…and revealing the facets and flaws of society.

Russian soprano Olga Chernisheva sang the role of the fifteen-year-old child bride Cio-Cio San with fragile composure and smoky depths. Her first aria, about her family’s former wealth and fall into poverty, quotes a Japanese folk tune with distinctive pentatonic scales. But surprisingly, there was no condescension in those musical quotes.

On the contrary, when her new “husband,” American naval officer B.F. Pinkerton, entered, Puccini sketched musical phrases from “Oh, Say Can You See.” Our anthem felt out of place and almost discordant beside the soft Italian phrases and Asian scales, a clash of cultures and values. David Gustafson sang Pinkerton with all of the punch-drunk ardor of fresh love, boasting about how he has married his lovely geisha for 999 years – and that he can divorce her with just 30 days notice! His thick blond hair and side part is pure Trump, a timely comment on how ruthless business has no business in love, even in an arranged marriage.

The real surprise was Igor Vieira, a baritone with gorgeous vowels and soft entrances, and a regular in West Bay Opera productions. His whiskey bottom notes matched well with Chernisheva’s low resonance, and his deeply felt acting shifted this production into that mysterious realm where everything magically comes together. Truly, this was a dreamlike realm where emotions seemed substantial enough to cast their own shadows.

And the most solid of those emotions was faith, painted in firm colors by Chernisheva in the famed aria Un bel di (one fine day…), her faith that Pinkerton will return to her. Her sound was slow-simmered and moved the audience, some to tears.

The poles of the emotions were nicely displayed as well. Michael Desnoyers was a sweet-voiced tenor and comic force as Goro, the marriage broker, while bass-baritone Kiril Havezov played the heavy as the religious force of the village, the Bonze, chastising Cio-cio San for abandoning her ancient faith for that of her husband’s Christianity and leading her family to turn their backs on her.

Eugene Brancoveanu, who is a Bay Area treasure as a baritone, has recently been turning his talents more towards directing. He was the stage director for this production, creating believable characterizations through the acting and side business. In one orchestral interlude Pinkerton and his… (spoiler alert) …new American wife receive a letter telling him that he has fathered a son. This is a non-singing part, but the two acted out their denial and contrition and quite upstaged the music. 

Although some may have found it heavy handed, this is hardly the genre for subtlety!

West Bay Opera’s 60th season is now over, but they are already gearing up for next year with an exciting line-up, beginning with Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. See their website, westbayopera.org, for further details.

—Adam Broner

Photo, below, of Olga Chernisheva as Cio-cio San (lower left in light) and chorus in Madama Butterfly at West Bay Opera in Palo Alto. Photo by Otak Jump.

M. Butterfly-WBO- by Otak Jump