The first time Madame Butterfly was performed — at the famed La Scala opera house in Milan in 1904 — it was greeted with catcalls and jeers. The evening was such a disaster that composer Giacomo Puccini returned the fee he'd been paid for the commission. Puccini went back to the drawing board, and four months later he premiered a new, shorter version in a smaller venue in the Italian city of Brescia. The rewrite seems to have worked. Puccini's masterpiece is No. 1 on Opera America's list of the twenty most-performed operas. Opera Theatre of Saint Louis' Butterfly will certainly add to its status as one of the most perfectly realized marriages of words and music in the vast opera repertory.
On its most intimate level, Madame Butterfly is about the destruction of an innocent, exploited young woman. On the macro level, the factually based plot is a powerful indictment of the barbaric callousness of the colonial mentality. The heroine, Cio-Cio-San, played here by Kelly Kaduce, is the fifteen-year-old daughter of a formerly rich and influential family that has fallen on hard times. She is offered to Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, an American naval officer stationed in Japan, in a temporary "marriage," to be annulled if the husband is absent for 30 days. Too innocent to understand the fine print, Cio-Cio-San loves Pinkerton. When he leaves, promising to return, she believes him and waits faithfully, bearing and raising his child in his absence. When he returns, with an American wife, to claim the child, now three years old, a combination of shame and heartbreak drives her to commit ritual suicide.
Soprano Kaduce brings a finely honed and fully formed portrayal, rich in detail, to an elegantly conceived production that has had all its kinks worked out. (Kaduce played Cio-Cio-San at the Minnesota Opera in Minneapolis in 2004 and again at Boston's Lyric Opera in 2006; those productions, and the current one, were planned by Opera Theatre's longtime artistic director, the late Colin Graham.)
Those who've seen Kaduce in her previous St. Louis appearances — she played the title roles in Sister Angelica, Jane Eyre and Anna Karenina — won't be surprised at her magnificent searing performance. Taking stylistic cues from Kabuki theater — Graham was a student of Kabuki and all things Japanese — Kaduce walks a fine line, carefully growing Cio-Cio-San from naive child to worldly wise woman. Her lusciously mellow, warmly radiant voice embraces, then releases Puccini's gorgeous, Japanese-derived melodies and makes them soar. Her acting is as refined as her singing.
(In a recent interview with Opera News, Kaduce extolled the virtues of the intimate Loretto-Hilton stage: "In St. Louis...I can get away with more stillness and more subtle gestures, and subtle reactions to things. If I'm going to do something on a bigger stage, I'm obviously going to have to make stronger physical choices to carry the character all the way to the back of the hall. I might complete a gesture with my whole body, rather than expressing something just with my face.")
As Pinkerton, David Pomeroy is superb. Pomeroy's crisp tenor projects emotion with effortless ease, as his ugly-American boorishness and cheap infatuation with the geisha-girl plaything evolve smoothly into the painfully catastrophic realization of the consequences of his selfishness.
Neil Patel's simple and effective set allows lighting director Robert Denton plenty of room and just enough shadow and space to heighten atmosphere, define time and insinuate action. This is especially important during a fifteen-minute transition scene between acts two and three, when Cio-Cio-San endures the long wait for Pinkerton to disembark from his ship and come home, her mood moving from breathless expectation to weary realization. All the while, the pit orchestra of Saint Louis Symphony pros, conducted by Timothy Long, evokes breadth, depth and color from Puccini's rich score.
It's the perfect marriage of music and singing. Would that Cio-Cio-San's marriage had worked out as well.