A recent innovation at the Eastern Music Festival has been an evening programmed around vocal and orchestral excerpts from operas. There were few empty seats in Dana Auditorium at the July 24 concert that featured three "bleeding chunks" of Wagner and substantial excerpts from Puccini's Madame Butterfly. The Eastern Philharmonic Orchestra, a faculty ensemble, was under the able direction of conductor George Manahan, currently in his seventh season as Music Director of the New York City Opera. All but one of the four opera singers are associated with his company.
Strength in every section was on full display in three excerpts from two Wagner operas. The Rienzi Overture benefited from the orchestra's rich string sonority and brilliant brass. The crucial repeated trumpet solo was superbly phrased by Rodney Mack. The Preludes to Acts I and III of Lohengrin were played with but the briefest pause between them. The first, starting with the strings in their highest ranges, showed the extraordinary precision and tight unity of the two violin sections during the refined, quiet opening, where the slightest slip in intonation would have been glaring. The horns, trombones, trumpets, and tuba gloried at being let off the leash in the Act III Prelude. Manahan's balances, tempos and phrasing seemed ideal.
The focus of the concert was a semi-staged, concert-dress performance of key scenes from Acts II and III of Madame Butterfly. From Act II, the scene in which Sharpless tries to break the news of Pinkerton's abandonment to Butterfly and Suzuki was given. This was followed by the concluding scene of Act III, in which Butterfly says goodbye to her son and commits suicide. Manahan's accompaniments fitted the singers like a glove. I have seldom seen a conductor more closely attentive to his singers. Many fine details of Puccini's orchestration, sometimes muffled by opera pits, were revealed. Orchestral balances were perfect.
Being used to productions that are fully costumed, it was disconcerting to see Butterfly and Suzuki as blondes. Dramatic soprano Barbara Shirvis was a moving Butterfly. Her voice was even throughout its range and she had refined control of its tone and timbre. Her facial expressions mirrored her wrenching emotional struggles. Her voice soared gloriously over the course of "Un bel di." Watching mezzo-soprano Jennifer Hines' empathetic Suzuki, I was reminded of Judy Garland, late in her career, when her raw emotions seemed like open wounds. Suzuki's anguish for Butterfly's plight seemed all too real. Though listed as a mezzo, her range was unusually low and her tone, dark, verging on a true contralto. This made for a very interesting "Flower Duet" in which there was very little overlap of the two singers' ranges. Stephen Powell, with a rock-solid baritone voice, sang Sharpless, the American Consul. He fully conveyed his deep sympathy for Butterfly's predicament and his contempt for the cavalier Pinkerton. In his brief appearances, Alan Glassman displayed a strong, even tenor with a ringing top. Young Riley Smith (son of horn player Patrick G. Smith) made his debut in the non-speaking role of Dolore (Trouble). His understated portrayal of Butterfly's son was ideal, rising to the occasion with his waving of the American flag.