The boldness of the Virago Theatre Company cannot be denied. Imagine staging one of the world’s best loved and most performed operas in a tiny venue more suited to dance recitals and art exhibits – and doing it all with panache and utmost brilliance. I can well imagine the creative team getting together and, bravely invoking their mission to produce provocative and passionate theatre, saying a collective “bring it on,” when deciding to stage Puccini’s tragic masterpiece Madama Butterfly. Normally performed in houses that seat over 1000 patrons, Virago brings 'Butterfly' to the Rhythmix Cultural Works Theatre (the Alameda venue seats 150), losing nothing of the rich lushness of Puccini’s giant work and actually adding to the beauty of the opera in the intimacy of the setting. Playing now through April 15,* Madama Butterfly is a wonderful and passionate offering.
Set Designer Hilma Kargoll makes great use of the small space, transporting the audience to a hillside home overlooking the harbor of Nagasaki, Japan in 1904 where American lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton has settled for the time being. The tri-level set is flanked by rice paper screens draped with two simple swaths of silk material. Elements of a Buddhist faith tradition are seen, along with a delicately potted bamboo plant and a Japanese calligraphy art piece. Pinkerton has purchased a young Japanese bride along with rental of his upscale house. It should not be lost on the audience that the 999-year-lease can be cancelled as he pleases and so too, his marriage of convenience.
Adding to the intimate ambience of the production was the chamber orchestra seated stage right and lead by conductor Jerry Kuderna who masterfully directed the outstanding musicians. Their sweeping and expressive articulation of Puccini’s moving score was certainly a highlight of the evening.
In the demanding role of the young bride, Cio-Cio San (Butterfly in English), was local favorite Eileen Meredith whose beautifully mature soprano never obscured the youthful innocence of the geisha girl betrayed by her deplorable American husband, Pinkerton, with whom she has fallen in love and has staked her whole existence on.
Tenor Raymond Chavez excels as the lieutenant who boasts to Goro the marriage broker (a wonderfully affable Alex Taite) that life isn’t worth living if he can’t win the hand of every beautiful woman the world over. In a revealing scene Butterfly sings of her love for him, over her family and her own religion, while her new husband slowly but resolutely leads her to the bedroom, only half listening to her heartfelt outpouring. Director Lundy-Paine does an excellent job of contrasting Pinkerton’s carnal desire with Butterfly’s longing to be loved.
Seeking to warn Pinkerton that his treatment of Butterfly must be more circumspect, is U.S. Consul Sharpless played to perfection by Martin Bell. Butterfly’s maid Suzuki (mezzo Sally Mouzon) isn’t fooled by the lusty American either and when he leaves she knows he isn’t coming back.
In Acts Two and Three, three years have gone by and, unbeknownst to Pinkerton, he has fathered a child with his Japanese bride. Born-to-the-stage Sophia Dant (who is five) plays the couple’s child and is simply charming in the part. When Pinkerton does return, with American wife Kate (Cass Panuska) in tow, it is only to settle his accounts and not to settle down with Butterfly. When he finally understands that Butterfly is in love with him, he is too much the coward to confront her himself and leaves the task to Sharpless, Kate and Suzuki.
Puccini’s Madama Butterfly tells the intimate tale of a woman’s faithful devotion to an indifferent man, as well as the overarching story of the way western imperialism dehumanized those considered “other.” Underneath the masterful score and soaring lyrics of Madama Butterfly lies a lesson to be learned.
By Giacomo Puccini
Directed by Robert Lundy-Paine
Virago Theatre Company
Sunday, April 15 at 2:00 pm with an afternoon of Sushi and Saki
*With additional performances at:
The Hillside Club (seats approx. 200), Berkeley 2286 Cedar Street Berkeley, CA
Friday, April 20th at 7:30 pm early time Sushi and Saki Special Presentation
Sunday, April 22nd at 2:00 pm afternoon Wine and Cheese Closing
Photo courtesy of Virago Theatre Company