Central City stages Butterfly with a bite

Nonetheless, you get stuck on the flypaper of Puccini’s sometimes saccharine
score, tear up and go home thinking you’ve experienced Great Art. That —
happily — ended locally in 2005 when veteran soprano Catherine Malfitano
came to Central City to direct a Butterfly with a bite.

The production returned to the historic CCO house on Saturday, and it’s even
more brilliant than it was five years ago. Malfitano has focused her
experienced attention on two aspects of the opera to achieve this. She places
major emphasis on the suicide of Butterfly’s father. Although details are not
given, it was an act necessary to preserve his honor — and that of his
family. Malfitano adds the late non-singing father to Puccini’s cast.
White-clad with long beard, he disembowels himself on stage before the music

CCOSharplessPinkerton.gifGrant Youngblood as Sharpless and Chad Shelton as Pinkerton

Okay, it gives things away, but everyone knows the end anyhow. The father
returns throughout the staging to underscore the inevitability of his daughters
death. This brings a depth to the score — “an inexorable feeling of
fate,” says the director — that it otherwise has never had. Malfitano’s
second stroke of genius comes with the love duet that ends Act One. It’s
powerful music that easily stands on its own; in this staging, however,
Pinkerton, the American Navy man of questionable character, and the
still-innocent Butterfly slowly undress each other. It might sound like
strip-tease, but it isn’t. It’s done with impeccable taste, mesmerizing
slowness and controlled delicacy until the two are silhouetted in embrace
against an orange moon. Like a nerve laid bare, this brings the intense sexual
undercurrent of the music to the surface, where it stays for the remainder of
the staging. Puccini has never had it so good!

To bring life to Malfitano’s ideas, the CCO has assembled an ideal cast and
production team. Yunah Lee has made Butterfly her signature role around the
world, and Mika Shigematsu is equally celebrated as servant-companion Suzuki.
Obviously, you don’t have to be Asian to sing these roles, but it adds to
illusion. (And it avoids the excesses of make-up and pathetic pussy-footing of
Western singers who try thus to bring “reality” to the 1904 opera.) In addition to a powerful and expressive voice Lee identifies totally with Butterfly, and
Shigematsu’s warm mezzo leaves one sitting back just to listen.

CCOPinkertonButterflyWeddin.gifChad Shelton as Pinkerton and Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San

Chad Shelton remains a youthful tenor with a voice of power and passion that
downplays the cad Pinkerton is in deserting his bride. Baritone Grant
Youngblood, a CCO old-timer, plays an American consul tormented by the wrong
that he must nonetheless endorse.

Dany Lyne’s designs and costumes are impressively simple, while retaining
hints of the setting in Japan. Near-miraculous is the conducting of Matthew
Halls, the young British master of the Baroque who came to Colorado a year ago
to conduct Handel’s Rinaldo. Halls asked to be on the podium for
Puccini, and one hears why. He understands both story and music and has the CCO
pit band playing as if it were the Vienna Philharmonic.

Andrew Altaenbach prepared the chorus of CCO young artists that —
effectively — comes to the rear of the stage in blue masks to sing the
“Humming” Chorus that accompanies Butterfly’s nocturnal vigil. (Usually the
chorus sings off stage.) In the orchestral interlude that follows Halls
elevates Puccini to Beethoven’s level as a master of orchestral composition.

CCOPinkertonGoroSuzuki.gifChad Shelton as Pinkerton, Joseph Gaines as Goro and Mika Shigematsu as Suzuki

This is — in sum — is Puccini staged by a troupe of masters who
bring new insight — and emotion — to the overworked score. Others exaggerate tricks and trivia to rescue Butterfly from its own
popularity. Malfitano knows it’s all there in the music and stages the opera
with maximum simplicity — and impact. There may never be another
Butterfly like it.

Madama Butterfly plays at Central City Opera through August 9. For
information, call 303-292-6700 or www.centralcityopera.org.

Wes Blomster

image_description=Yunah Lee (Cio-Cio-San). [Photo by Mark Kiryluk courtesy of Central City Opera]
product_title=Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly
product_by=Butterfly: Yunah Lee; Pinkerton: Chad Shelton; Suzuki: Mika Shigamatsu; Sharpless: Grant Youngblood. Director: Catherine Malfitano. Conductor: Matthew Halls.
product_id=Above: Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San

All photos by Mark Kiryluk courtesy of Central City Opera