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North America, Online Exclusive

Madama Butterfly

Cincinnati Opera

CINCINNATI OPERA closed its season with a revelatory new production of Madama Butterfly (seen July 22). The familiar story is a Western male fantasy, and the all-Japanese and Japanese–American creative team took that as their starting point. In this telling, B.F. Pinkerton is a young contemporary American who escapes his narrow existence in a virtual reality world where he is a naval officer in Nagasaki. In an opening pantomime, he is seen in a cramped apartment, posters on the wall suggesting an obsession with Japan. As the music begins, he puts on a VR headset, his apartment splits to reveal the Japanese setting, and he returns to that world. Act I unfolds without heavy-handed directorial intervention, but there are unobtrusive reminders that Pinkerton is not in an actual Japan: some costume details are slightly awry, secondary figures occasionally stand still as if waiting to be activated by another player, the American flag displayed so prominently appears to have only forty-eight stars, and so on. Another pantomime before the opening of the combined Acts II and III finds Pinkerton interacting with his wife Kate, who is angered by his VR addiction. He resumes the game, now observing developments that he is clearly powerless to control. 

In the last act, the final collision of fantasy and reality takes place. When Pinkerton returns and Butterfly is about to commit suicide, the halves of his apartment, which had been visible throughout, are brought back together violently, with the two of them at center stage. Butterfly’s dagger rips off her wedding robe, revealing modern dress beneath. As he cradles the costume and calls out her name, she walks slowly, almost defiantly, off the stage. It’s an extraordinary re-envisioning of the opera, a subtle critique that does no violence to the work but focuses attention on what is already there. It sheds some light on the music as well—never have Puccini’s many fragmentary quotations of “The Star-Spangled Banner” seemed so meaningful. The staging was created jointly with the Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Utah Opera Companies, which all will be presenting it in upcoming seasons. This powerful, thought-provoking production certainly deserves wide exposure. 

The creative team was led by director Matthew Ozawa, returning to Cincinnati after his 2019 debut with Roméo et Juliette. The elaborate set, created by the design collective known as dots, was colorful, blending realistic elements with others that suggested VR backgrounds that had been hastily sketched in. The costumes of Maiko Matsushima offered a similar mix.

None of this would have worked without a strong cast, and they were consistently excellent, most of the principals making Cincinnati Opera debuts. Karah Son has performed the title role in a number of houses, and it’s clear why. She has a surprisingly powerful voice, with a good deal of strength in all parts of Butterfly’s wide-ranging music, and she is an affecting actress. As B.F. Pinkerton, Adam Smith made an impressive debut as well, offering ringing top notes and managing to create some sympathy for this generally unsympathetic character. Nozomi Kato was a warm-voiced Suzuki, and Nmon Ford (heard here most recently as Crown) was a supportive Sharpless. Smaller roles were consistently well done, with unforced comic turns in Julius Ahn’s Goro and Jacob Zhou’s Yamadori and an imposing Bonze from Peixin Chen. Kayleigh Decker—benefitting from the restoration of some of Kate’s music from the Brescia version of the opera—had been introduced earlier this season as Alisa in Lucia and again revealed a promising talent.

As always, the Cincinnati Opera Chorus was musically polished and dramatically engaged. The Cincinnati Symphony played wonderfully (beautifully balanced wind chords underlining Butterfly’s tragic history, for instance). The conducting of Keitaro Harada was first rate. The orchestral sound was transparent, revealing details often not heard, and the balance with singers was exemplary throughout. —Joe Law