Opera Lyra Ottawa brings Puccini’s tale of love and betrayal in early 20th century Japan to the National Arts Centre.
Should you see it?
Opera is a genre in which I have limited experience. I enjoy it greatly, but there are so many elements to consider that it can be a bit overwhelming – the voices, the performances, the orchestra, the sets, the costumes, the plot, the music and more, all contribute to a production. While I felt that Opera Lyra’s Madama Butterfly nailed the performance aspect, I enjoyed the content itself a little less than I expected.
Madama Butterfly is about a young Japanese geisha named Cio-Cio-San, who is known as Madame Butterfly. She falls in love with American naval officer B.F. Pinkerton, who is charmed by her and marries her, but doesn’t return her deep love. This leads to betrayal and heartbreak for poor Madame Butterfly.
Although Madama Butterfly’s arias are haunting, none are really memorable in the way of some of Puccini’s other works. The first act is a little slow, as it spends a lot of time setting up Madame Butterfly’s love for Pinkerton. It does nicely foreshadow the tragedy to come, but it drags at many points. However, things pick up considerably in the second and third acts as Cio-Cio-San discovers her husband’s betrayal. Madame Butterfly is also allowed considerably more character development when Pinkerton is away, showing a stubborn devotion to him as she playfully teases her potential suitor Prince Yamadori.
Shuying Li is magnetic from the moment she steps onstage as Cio-Cio-San, with a voice that showcases the power of Madame Butterfly’s convictions as well as her vulnerability and youth. Arminè Kassabian as Cio-Cio-San’s maid Suzuki comes close to upstaging Shuying Li with an emotional vocal performance. Both share great chemistry on stage and sound fantastic together when they harmonize. Their joyful duet as they cover the house in flowers for Pinkerton’s return is a musical highlight. James Westman as the American Consulate Sharpless also has a strong vocal presence, and brings some much-needed comedic moments to this tragedy.
As I’ve come to expect from Opera Lyra’s performances, the set and costumes are lavish and detailed. The rich and colorful costumes as well as Liz Ciesluk’s makeup design really brings the audience into early 20th century Japan. The orchestra, conducted by Tyrone Paterson, is impeccable. The Opera Lyra Ottawa Chorus also adds some life to the first act. Although Madama Butterfly isn’t my favorite opera of all time, emotional performances and a strong second half make for an enjoyable night at the opera.
But that’s just my opinion and I’d like to hear what you think. Which performances stood out? Do you disagree with my thoughts about the first act? Let me know in the comments below!
Madama Butterfly runs at the National Arts Centre’s Southam Hall for only two more nights, April 23rd and 26th. For more information, check out our preview article.