By Amy J. Parrent
In the Michigan Opera Theatre program handed out at "Madame Butterfly," there is an interview with 93-year-old John Fleming, WWII veteran, retired teacher and MOT volunteer. He recalls being enthralled by opera as a child listening to the Victrola.
When Fleming was born, "Madame Butterfly" was an almost-new piece, having premiered in 1904. We are still that close to this work. Motion pictures existed when this opera opened. So did the telephone – although it was not yet necessary to ask people to turn theirs off before the show began.
So it is not some relic from a far-different time and place. Neither is it one of those spectacles. This is not about plotting kings and queens. There are no horses or elephants parading across the stage. It is almost a chamber piece, a kind of contemporary theater, or a small art film about a simple young woman – a smart woman, too smart for the time and place she is stuck in – whose family perhaps once had money, but now has none. And the cocky young man whom she has the misfortune to love is a sailor from a foreign country, a very foreign country called America.
Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, portrayed commandingly in both presence and voice by Noah Stewart, is the Yankee naval lieutenant thrilled by the conventions of his temporary home in Japan. He likes very much the arrangement with a geisha set up by a broker: a 999-year contract, which he can drop out of any month. "In this country, houses and contracts are elastic," he brags to an acquaintance, the consul Sharpless.
Sharpless – played with engaging conviction by baritone Michael Mayes – is actually quite sharp, warning the callous lieutenant that such a path will lead to a corrupt heart.
He is even more appalled when the bridal party enters, and he learns the beautiful young woman is only 15. Cio-Cio-San – Madame Butterfly – is as complex and mature a teen as you will ever see, and leading lady Inna Los heartbreakingly inhabits this character. Although at times early on in the evening her voice sounded just slightly overpowered by the music – perhaps especially in contrast to Stewart's large tenor – from the near seats she gave a film-worthy performance.
On the one hand, already a slave to love for this American, the young Butterfly is also bright, even witty, although with a family history that hangs a dark shadow. Even if this were not one of the most famous operatic stories of all, you would still know this was not going to go well.
But oh, what a way to watch a sorrowful story unfold. The supporting performers, including Kimberly Sogioka as Suzuki, Julius Ahn as Goro, and Zachary Coates as Prince Yamadori, are all excellent. On opening night adorable little Morgan Armstrong nearly stole the show – a not easy feat with this production – as Butterfly and Pinkerton's child. The MOT chorus, too, is a fine support. Kudos as well to the evening-long robust sound of the MOT Orchestra under the direction of Stephen Lord.
In the technical areas, it is particularly the lighting by Michael Baumgarten that enhances the simple but powerful emotions of the story. And this is where the feeling of watching a contemporary piece comes into play: How striking, how uncomfortable is that wordless, almost motionless sequence late in the final act, Butterfly's long night of waiting for Pinkterton to return at last, as the lighting shifts ever so subtly from evening to night to dawn again, and the audience, waiting with her, feeling for her, while the "Humming Chorus" and the instrumental montage plays underneath like the world's best film score.
We want that happy ending for Butterfly and her baby – although maybe with a better guy than that Yankee cad. But even if we don't get that, we get a haunting piece of music. And of theater.
Michigan Opera Theatre
at Detroit Opera House
1526 Broadway St., Detroit
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 19
7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 21
7:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 22
2:30 Sunday, Nov. 23