Perhaps the most opportune time to see the biggest and brightest that the Santa Barbara social scene has to offer is at the opening night of an Opera Santa Barbara production. Last Friday, downtown State Street was lined with elegant young couples walking briskly in the cold night air, glitzy elderly women standing stoically in silk kimono outfits and towering heels and moneyed, smiling men glad at their opportunity to suit up and see the opera.
And if any opening night merits a red carpet, it would be that of “Madame Butterfly.” Opera SB’s production of the powerhouse piece by Giacomo Puccini opened on Friday, Nov. 2 at the Granada Theatre in the traditional Opera SB fashion: that is, in fashion.
The opera opens on an American naval officer, Pinkerton — one of the opera’s signature bad guys, despite how silly the name “Pinkerton” sounds — in an otherwise entirely Italian-tongued score. Pinkerton (Alexey Sayapin) and the American consul, Sharpless (Krassen Karagiozov), discuss Pinkerton’s marriage to the mysterious Madame Butterfly, a woman of great beauty and graceful, delicate and almost childlike ways that seem to invoke both the hunter and the hunted in the young officer, as he longs to catch the delicate, flighty woman in love.
What Karagiozov originally lacked in projection and Sayapin in simple melodiousness in the beginning minutes of the piece, they made up for in pure machismo punch as the two warmed up. As the pair downed multiple glasses of American whiskey (cowardly Sharpless watching Pinkerton in bemused fascination — a wonderful theatrical touch by director Keturah Stickann), it became evident that Pinkerton’s intentions were anything but noble and, falling into the caddish category of men with Oriental fantasies, the officer saw the marriage as a conquest to be won and then forgotten about when moving on to better things and bigger challenges.
Such was the sad foundation built for the marvelous entrance of Madame Butterfly, or Cio-Cio San, preluded by a chorus of over a dozen fantastically costumed, geisha-esque women as her wedding party. Her voice is heard before she is seen, a disconcerting entrance that was amplified by the sonorous, booming voice of soprano Mihoko Kinoshita. Described amply as a delicate, childlike figure, this powerful voice was set up to be almost jarring. When Sharpless asks the bride her age and she answers coquettishly that she is just 15, her powerful vocal timbre made the revelation a tad difficult to believe.
Eventually, however, Kinoshita solidified her character with her convincing, fervent portrayal of Madame Butterfly’s desperate, all-consuming love for Pinkerton. Just after their marriage and as the two begin to share a certain matrimonial bliss, Cio-Cio San’s uncle appears to publicly — and correctly — accuse her of having renounced their ancient religion for Pinkerton’s Christian, American God. Her family disowns her.
She is stricken with grief, but new love can trump even the deepest of sufferings. After Pinkteron comforts her, the couple spends their first night together. They reveal through their romantic but laborious pre-coital love duet that they barely know each other and finally kiss, an event that was gorgeously glimpsed from the narrow doors of their room, backlit ever so slightly by the paper-thin walls of the traditional Japanese architecture that made their love nest.
In fact, using visually appealing structures in conjunction with brilliant stage lighting was a strong aesthetic throughout the piece and, it seems, is a regular manifestation in Opera SB productions. This tactic was perhaps most stunningly displayed in Act II. Beginning three years after the marriage, and moreover, three years since Pinkerton scooted back to America without keeping in contact with his lovely wife, the scene is that of profound loneliness. Cio-Cio San has been abandoned by her town and family, yet still waits longingly with her servant and son for the return of her husband.
At this moment, audience members were glad for the particular power of Kinoshita’s soprano, as her “Un Bel Di” (“One Fine Day”), one of Puccini’s saddest and most famous arias, here accentuated the deep dissonance of the character’s bleak loneliness and youthful hope. When the makeshift family of son, servant and broken, 18-year-old mother sees Pinkerton’s sails in the distance, they begin an all-night vigil in wait.
Director Stickann and lighting design director Lucas Krech rendered this completely instrumental scene as one of the most stunning in the production, using the lighting to slowly change the rural set from honeyed pink to bluish black to denote the staggering passing of time. Synchronously, Cio-Cio San, her son and her servant Suzuki kneeled down, facing the back of the stage. As the lights dimmed, the audience was presented with a simultaneously warm and ghostly silhouette of the three as they slowly collapsed into sleep.
Act II also offered up a better glimpse of the relationship between Cio-Cio San and Suzuki, showcasing the impeccable voice and adroit acting abilities of Nina Yoshida Nelsen’s Suzuki in a supporting role that might otherwise go unnoticed. Nelsen almost effortlessly fell into the two-fold role of servant and pseudo-sister, with an unfaltering, supportive mezzo-soprano voice.
And yet, despite the beauty that awaits him, Pinkerton does not come until that next morning, after Cio-Cio San has gone to bed dejected. He reveals to Suzuki that he has remarried an American woman, Kate (who lingers ominously and awkwardly in the peripheries of the scene), and he intends to take the child with him to America. He leaves Suzuki with the message.
While overpowering grief shakes her entire being, Madame Butterfly immediately agrees. She orders that she will relinquish the boy if Pinkerton comes to get him himself and, sending Suzuki and her son to play outside, sits on the floor in the middle of her room in a twisted, final demonstration of obedience: dressed in white and red and backlit by an eerie setting sun, Cio-Cio San stabs herself in the heart just as Pinkerton’s voice is heard calling her name.
From a cast and even directorial staff for which this was a debut, “Butterfly” rang with a certain cosmopolitan beauty that is Opera Santa Barbara’s forte. The aching melodies, glittering oriental cherry trees and dancing lights that occupied the Granada’s stage for those three hours made even the most elegant of Santa Barbara socialite’s jewels look dim in comparison. Between the beautiful display, the talented performers and the tragic story, this evening will likely linger with the audience for quite some time.