Lyric Opera of Kansas City’s Traditional “Madama Butterfly” Transforms as Opera of Our Time

It’s been six years since Lyric Opera of Kansas City last staged Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” its 10th production of the 1904 opera in the company’s 61 year history.

The performance on opening night in Kauffman Theatre made a strong case for the continuing endurance of the opera. The production was majestic, the cast strong and emotive, delivering Puccini’s lyrical gut-punches time and again. The orchestra, conducted by Ryan McAdams, was in powerhouse form.

This production, based on the 1997 concept by director Rob Daniels (originally for Dallas Opera), used the original two-act format in a traditional setting, with authentic Japanese elements and a straight ahead telling of Butterfly’s tragic fate, with poetic libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.

This was the first Lyric Opera of Kansas City production for many in the seasoned cast.

Soprano Karah Son, as the beguiling Cio-Cio San, made her US debut in this Lyric Opera of Kansas City performance. She was a translucent Butterfly, her transformation from a shy, but eager girl to a suffering mother, broken open and consumed by grief, was a spectacular performance. (She could have brought more threat to Butterfly’s violent outbursts, but then again, Butterfly is a gentle soul). Son’s upper notes soared, her lower register colored with russet tones, giving a show-stopping performance of “Un bel dì vedremo,” her hope palpable with longing and faith.

Puccini wasted no time in establishing Pinkerton’s intentions, casting the Western world’s take-what-you-will attitude onto one man. Georgy Vasiliev has a charming, handsome tenor, his Pinkerton callous and impatient, though he did display a bit of nervous anticipation as he prepared to bed Butterfly, indicating he was perhaps not as world-worthy as he projected. His second act appearance, though, revealed his inherent weakness and less convincing remorse, and Vasiliev was treated to the character’s traditional boos during the curtain call.

Mezzo-soprano Kristen Choi, as the steadfast Suzuki, was a delight of this production, solidly empathetic and ferocious in her protection of Butterfly. Butterfly’s joy is her joy; Butterfly’s grief is her grief: together they decorated with flower petals in one of the most beautiful scenes in the production. Choi also had the admirable task of shepherding Butterfly’s child, Trouble, performed with nearly distracting cuteness by Henley Spaulding.

Daniel Belcher, baritone, gave a fine performance, presenting a conflicted American Consul Sharpless, torn between his personal sympathies and his ingrained Western biases.

Tenor Julius Ahn performed Goro, the conniving marriage broker, with humorous energy, while mezzo Kelly Birch gave us a steady Kate Pinkerton, sympathetic to a degree, yet unapologetic in her intent.

In a spectacular entrance against a searing red backdrop, Peixin Chen was the terrifying Bonze. SeokJong Baek gave a solid performance as the rejected Prince Yamadori.

Puccini’s score is a magnificent, manipulative work of melodrama, combining themes and timbres from American and Japanese sources with Puccini’s appetite for excitement and lyricism. The orchestra performed with assured, exuberant playing – so much so that it often overwhelmed the vocalists.

Michael Yeargan designed the sets, originally for San Francisco Opera, a series of large-scale rolling screens, decorated with delicate watercolor paintings, positioned across the stage in various configurations to form both grand and intimate spaces.

The costumes, also by Yeargan, cast us into the specific era (aided by the on-stage portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt), when relations between the countries were increasing, along with the inevitable conflicts of cultural. Wig and makeup designer David Zimmerman offered the simpler version of traditional style, along with subtle indicators in the second act of Cio-Cio San and Suzuki’s constrained circumstances.

Because Lyric Opera presented the two-act version, we witnessed the opera’s powerful transition of patience and watchfulness, staying guard along with Butterfly. Here, lighting, designed by Stephen Strawbridge, played the main role, from dusk to dark to dawn, flowing from the famous humming chorus into the radiance of morning, Butterfly with her child, at peace.

As one of the most enduring and beloved operas of the chaotic 20th century, examining how “Madama Butterfly” fits into the 21st century, as our social conscience rapidly adjusts, is as telling for the opera and the era it was conceived as to what it reveals to each of us regarding our individual ethical conceits.

If there would be just one moral to draw from Puccini’s opera, it is that complicity is as grave a cruelty as the sin itself.  Butterfly is not only a victim of abandonment from her husband and renounced by her family, but locked in the expectations of two cultures, yet rejected by both, with figures of power unwilling to take the difficult step of helping her.

Complicity, too, can be the sin of the theatergoer: to simply say “poor Butterfly, great show” rings false. To wipe away tears when an actor pretends on stage to die amidst a swelling chord, but to turn a blind eye to true suffering, to real prejudice, to daily injustice in support of one’s own comfort is a sin of deep offense. It takes little imagination to consider plights similar to Butterfly’s in today’s world.

Reviewed November 3, 2018. Lyric Opera of Kansas City presents Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” 7:30 p.m. November 7 and 9, 2 p.m. November 11 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. For more information visit kcopera.org.

Libby Hanssen

Originally from Indiana, Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She is the author of States of Swing: The History of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, 2003-2023. Along with degrees in trombone performance, Libby was a Fellow for the NEA Arts Journalism Institute at Columbia University. She maintains the culture bog "Proust Eats a Sandwich."

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