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When Opera Carolina stages box office favorites it often adds extra performances and uses pairs of singers alternating in one or more leading roles. This was true for the Sunday matinee performance in Belk Theater, North Carolina Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, the last of four performances of Stage Director Bernard Uzan’s version of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. The two sopranos, who had sung the role of Cio-Cio San at the Metropolitan Opera, were Cynthia Lawrence (Oct. 26 & 28) and Kallen Esperian (Oct. 27 & 29).
The simplified and evocative unit set was designed by Boyd Ostroff and Kevin Baratier and very effectively and subtly lighted by Micael Baumgarten. The background was a view of mountains and perhaps a harbor painted in Japanese style, outlined in swift brush strokes. Lighting changes suggested the time of day. B. F. Pinkerton’s “99 year lease” house was a teakwood-like raised platform with a few sliding panels and a curved roof beam, rotated during the performance by stage hands dressed completely in black. This evoked Japanese Bunraku puppet theater, in which three puppeteers in black manipulate each character. A curved bridge and gate and a few flowers limned the garden. The colorful and richly detailed costumes, designed by Anibal Lapiz, were appropriate for the early 20th-century period. Director Uzan’s staging was largely traditional. The blocking of the groups in the Act I wedding scene was effective. The two unusual touches were in Act III. Butterfly’s suicide took place behind a backlighted screen and Pinkerton’s screams took place behind the house’s door screens, his strongly backlighted body casting a tragic shadow.
Gaëtan Laperrière’s robust baritone was welcome in the role of Sharpless, the United States Consul at Nagasaki. He fully portrayed the anguish and compassion felt for the betrayed bride. Perhaps a bit of phlegm caused a coarse early high note by tenor William Joyner as Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton during his early exchange with Sharpless in Act I, “Dovunque al mondo.” Joyner’s timbre was pleasing and he managed his other highs much better. The couple’s duet “Viene la Sera” went well. Joyner was dramatically effective, conveying the officer’s self-centered callousness and shallow infatuation during Act I and his horror at the bitter fruit of his actions. Few live performances of Cio-Cio San have laid bare the raw emotions of her character in Act III as Kallen Esperian did. Her firmly supported voice readily filled the hall and soared over Puccini’s ardent orchestration. Her “Un bel dì vedremo” went straight to the listener’s heart. Her highs were focused and on target pitch. Her skilled shading of color and dynamics added to the warmth of her sound. Mezzo-soprano Kitt Reuter Foss’s dark sound made a fine contrast but blended well with Esperian in the famous duet “Tutta la primavera” (“Flower Duet”).
The supporting cast was unusually even and strong. The strongly projected baritone of Dan Boye combined with fine acting made for a more complex characterization of Cio-Cio-San’s suitor, Prince Yamadori. Bass John Fortson was the imposing Bonze, Cio-Cio-San’s uncle. Character tenor Douglas Perry was appropriately obsequious as Goro, the marriage broker. Mezzo-soprano Diane McEwen-Martin was fine in the brief and thankless role of Kate Pinkerton. The “unsung hero” of the afternoon was the nearly six-year old Liam Broughton, who gave one of the most effective portrayals of Trouble, Butterfly's child, I have seen.
The guest conductor was Joseph Illick, currently the Music Director of Fort Worth Opera. He kept tight control, carefully coordinating ensemble between the pit and the stage. His singers were well supported with the warm melodies of Puccini’s orchestra coming across while never allowing the musicians to cover his singers. Every section of the Charlotte Symphony played well with rich-sounding strings and fine solos from many principals, including the oboe and horn. The third repetition of the tune of “Un bel dì vedremo”, played gently by the horn, was a typical example. The famous “humming chorus” by the Opera Carolina Chorus, was well done, as was their performance of the arrival of the wedding party, "Quanto cielo, Quanto mar!"