Sunday, April 10, 2011

Review: 'Madama Butterfly'

Virginia Opera
Joseph Walsh conducting
April 10, Richmond CenterStage

Virginia Opera concluded its 2010-11 mainstage season with a visually austere but vocally and dramatically potent production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.”

Soprano Sandra Lopez de Haro, as Cio-Cio San, the 15-year-old Japanese geisha who naively enters a marriage of convenience of an American naval officer, only to be abandoned after she bears him a son, looked and sounded more mature and robust than her character warranted in the first act of this final performance. She may have been out to match, in tone and projection, the rather stentorian tenor of Brian Jagde, portraying the sailor, Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton.

In Act 2, however, Lopez transformed herself into a more persuasively vulnerable character, singing with more nuanced passion. Her duet with mezzo-soprano Magdalena Wór, as the maid Suzuki, was the vocal high point of this performance. Coming a close second was Lopez’s powerfully moving rendition of Cio-Cio San’s great aria “One Fine Day.”

Baritone Levi Hernandez was in fine voice and even finer character as Sharpless, the humane and deeply conflicted American consul who tries and fails to convince Cio-Cio San to let Pinkerton go. Among singers in supporting roles, Jeffrey Halili as the marriage broker Goro and Ashraf Sewailam as the Bonze (Shinto high priest) were standouts.

This minimal “five-screen” staging, devised several years ago by designer Peter Harrison and director Dorothy Danner for a production in Philadelphia, was enhanced by backdrop projections and pastel-tinted lighting (by Kendall Smith). Austerity comes naturally to an opera set entirely in a hilltop house in turn-of-the-20th-century Nagasaki, Japan, and can enhance a production that focuses on characters, which this did.

Conductor Joseph Walsh, who with this production takes his leave of Virginia Opera to become general director of Lyric Opera Virginia, the new venture led by ex-Virginia Opera maestro Peter Mark, led members of the Richmond Symphony in a warmly textured, well-balanced reading of Puccini’s orchestral score.