CASTLETON, Va., July 9, 2014 – As we indicated earlier, a previously scheduled vacation prevented us from attending the opening night performance of the Castleton Festival’s new production of Puccini’s beloved operatic classic, “Madama Butterfly.” But we made up for that by catching this past Sunday’s performance (July 6 matinee) and were quite impressed by this generally fine performance.
As with Saturday’s “Don Giovanni,” ailing Maestro Maazel remained unable to conduct the performance, and so, as with last weekend’s opening performance, the Festival’s assistant conductor Brad Moore filled in and did a fine job with the young Castleton Orchestra, save for a bit too much volume in the early going which served to overshadow his singers.
Starring in the key role of Cio-Cio San (Butterfly) herself was soprano Ekaterina Metlova who greatly impressed us last year with her well rounded and exuberantly sung Minnie in Puccini’s somewhat lesser known “Girl of the Golden West” (“La fanciulla del West”) last season. She seemed to us to almost have been made for that Wild West cowgirl role, an unusual operatic heroine characterized by a very un-European self-confidence and swagger.
This time around, however, Ms. Metlova seemed a bit more uncertain how to approach the more nuanced character of Cio-Cio San, a young, worldly and yet naïve young woman whose lost her place in society.
Unwittingly, or at least uncomprehendingly, Cio-Cio San enters a sham marriage with Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, a visiting American Naval officer who wants to enjoy a touch of faux-married bliss while on extended shore leave while in Japan.
Assuming his young bride is in on the game, Pinkerton enjoys her company before sailing off again, not knowing he’s left her pregnant with his son. His return with an American bride three years later drives the opera to its inevitable, sad, and tragic conclusion, the fate, pretty much, of every Puccini heroine except that plucky Minnie.
Ms. Metlova grasped the dramatic essence of Cio-Cio San, but seemed more knowing, elegant and deferential to Pinkerton than the youthful naiveté the role seems to call for. That said, however, it’s noted as the opera progresses, that Cio-Cio San, due to her suddenly impoverished situation, has taken on the role of a geisha to earn revenue. Perhaps Ms. Metlova was keying her portrayal instead off this element in her character’s history.
In any event, her singing was bright, accurate, and quite dramatic when the action called for it. But her strong, ringing soprano seemed to have an edge to it that we didn’t detect in her performance last year, perhaps attributable to the newness of this role for her. But she still sang with grace and dignity, pleasing the full house by evoking a palpable sense of sorrow and pathos in her final scene.
Tenor Jonathan Burton added vocal power and sense of Teddy Roosevelt-era swagger to his role as Pinkerton in the first act, which made his character’s shabby behavior in the finale—once he discovers the misery he’s wrought on Cio-Cio San—that much greater and more effective a contrast.
Also impressive was Cory Crider in the smaller but more difficult role of the American consul, Sharpless. Washingtonians in particular can relate to this role, that of a classic diplomat who must generally keep his feelings to himself when acting as an intermediary between Americans and the foreign country where he serves.
Mr. Crider’s Sharpless walked a fine line throughout this performance, buttressing his character’s quiet authority with his rich, crisply commanding baritone voice. But we were glad to see him tempted to take a swing at Pinkerton in the late innings for all the misery he’d wrought.
It was a delight as well to see his tiny, real-life daughter taking the “trouser” role of “Trouble,” Butterfly’s and Pinkerton’s child. The audience gave the little tyke a warm round of applause at the curtain.
In the opera’s second half in particular, kudos to mezzo Kate Allen, who added her lustrous voice and warm empathy to the proceedings, helping Ms. Metlova build toward the opera’s tragic climax.
Tenor Chris Bozeka was suitably officious and intrusive as the obnoxious marriage-broker Goro, adding a welcome comic touch to the generally stately proceedings, bass-baritone Joseph Barron was traditionally unpleasant in his brief Act I turn as the Bonze, and Aaron Wardell was quite effective as a dashing but dignified Prince Yamadori.
Director Tomer Zvulun gave this production an atmosphere not unlike Kabuki Theater, perhaps one underlying reason for the formality of this production. But he kept the proceedings moving smoothly and tastefully throughout. His pacing was helped along by Edward Rom’s giant shoji screen backdrop, which kept stage matters simple while allowing translucent projections to play about the panes, evoking weather, emotions, and moods the opera explores.
Castleton’s “Butterfly” seems to be improving with age, which is a good thing for those planning or hoping to attend one of the remaining performances of this lush and wondrous opera classic. But be forewarned: as is almost always the case with Puccini, tickets are getting scarce.
Rating: ** ½ (2 ½ out of 4 stars)
Castleton’s “Madama Butterfly” will be performed two more times during the Festival, at 8 p.m. on July 11, and at 2 p.m. July 20, both performances in the Festival tent.
For tickets, information, and directions, visit the Castleton Festival website. Tickets range from $20-120 and, as of this writing, may be more plentiful on for the July 18 performance.