‘Madama Butterfly’ Spreads Wonderful Wings

CHAUTAUQUA – Brilliant, wonderful music filled the Chautauqua Amphitheater Saturday evening, and an audience filled its seats to the brim, as well as Chautauqua Opera performed their annual production in the Amp: ”Madama Butterfly,” by Giacomo Puccini.

The Chautauqua Opera Orchestra never sounded better, in my experience, than they did under the baton of conductor Arthur Fagen. The intensity of the orchestra was wedded to the swell and fall of the singing on stage, and it helped very much to create that crucial feeling of being engulfed by the emotions of the opera.

The opera is the story of a marriage between a young American navy officer and a very young Japanese woman. He thinks the relationship is one of convenience, and when he is transferred back to the states, assumes that the marriage is over. She believes in him and the things she has learned that America stands for, so she waits patiently, abandoning family and friends until her final hope is destroyed.

Soprano Mary Dunleavy gave one of the finest vocal performances, in the title role, that I have ever experienced in a long, long career of attending opera. Her voice was both powerful and beautiful in tone quality, and she could make the rafters ring or draw her voice in so quietly it was possible to see audience members leaning forward in order not to miss a note.

The audience paid tenor Scott Quinn the rare tribute of being so impressed by the weak and unfaithful character he was performing, that they booed his curtain calls. Let me be clear, it was neither his singing nor his acting which was booed, but the fact that his character was so unbelievably cruel. His singing was beautiful, with a strong and solid top. It was perhaps a bit pale at times, but always thrilling to hear.

Baritone Michael Chioldi gave the solid performance we have come to expect from him, singing the role of Sharpless, the American Consul in Nagasaki, where the plot is set, who tries to warn the young American that what he believes is a minor thing is destroying lives and doing harm, beyond his understanding.

Renee Tatum sang a heavy, strong, yet agile mezzo as Suzuki, Butterfly’s maid, and Jesse Darden brought humor to the stage as the opportunist marriage broker who gets the whole thing together, in return for a small fee.

Jay Lesenger’s direction was sensitive and effective. He made a three-hour opera feel like 90 quick minutes. His gift for putting one visual scene on the stage which is carried away in the heart of every member of the audience was displayed once again, as Butterfly’s tiny son, dressed in a little sailor suit, toddled away from his dead mother and toward his shocked father, holding a small American flag in his hand. I know I’ll never forget it.

The “son,” by the way was played by the soprano’s own daughter, Madeleine Williams, with a stage presence worthy of an ovation ,all by itself.

This was a wonderful production, one which filled the audience part of the amphitheater, and which kept nearly all of them in their seats until the end, despite the cold, the uncomfortable seats and the lateness of the hour.

Bravo, to the entire company.