The Naval Academy's Distinguished Artists Series continued its gem of a season Monday evening with the fourth event on its schedule, the annual London City Opera performance at Alumni Hall.
London City Opera is a touring company that traveled to Annapolis and 70 other U.S. cities last season with its Merry Widow. This season marks the opera's fifth North American tour of Puccini's Madame Butterfly.
Having always enjoyed the annual visits, and having heard Puccini's masterpiece at least a dozen times, I found the latest production to have an intimate charm.
The company has put on a convincing production with a single set that features an inclined ramp on the left leading to an elevated rear stage where incidental action takes place. On the right, a small Japanese house is represented by movable shoji screens. The set provides a charming entrance for Butterfly and her bridal party procession in Act 1. It also works well in Act 2 for the "Humming Chorus," with imaginative lighting that indicates night dissolving into dawn and gradually becoming morning with people scurrying about.
Puccini's 99-year-old opera tells of a 15-year-old geisha, Cio-Cio San (Butterfly), who is in love with U.S. Navy officer Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, who wants to have a girl in every port ("Dovanque al mondo" - wherever in the world).
When marriage broker Goro tells Pinkerton that he has his house leased for 999 years with the right to cancel on a month's notice, Pinkerton assumes the same conditions apply to his marriage contract.
Pinkerton toasts his impending "real American wedding" as his Japanese bride approaches. Although it's mere infatuation for Pinkerton, American consul Sharpless warns that it's life-altering love for Butterfly.
After the brief wedding ceremony, Cio-Cio San's uncle, The Bonze, arrives to curse her for renouncing her family and religion, and departs with the wedding guests. Pinkerton consoles his tearful bride ("Bimba, non piangere" - little girl, don't cry). Happy again, Butterfly joins Pinkerton in a love duet.
Three years later, abandoned by Pinkerton and down to her last yen, Butterfly sings to faithful servant Suzuki of her husband's return ("Un bel di" - one fine day).
When Sharpless arrives with Pinkerton's letter announcing his return to Nagasaki with his wife, he is prevented from reading it by an ecstatic Butterfly, who has heard only of Pinkerton's return. Resisting the advances of Prince Yamadori, whom Sharpless counsels her to consider, Butterfly instead introduces the consul to her blond, blue-eyed son. Sharpless promises to inform Pinkerton that he has a son.
After spotting Pinkerton's ship arriving, Butterfly and Suzuki decorate the house, singing the flower duet. Now 18, Butterfly worries about what three years has done to her beauty as she dons her wedding kimono.
Having waited all night, Butterfly is persuaded by servant Suzuki to rest. Suzuki then discovers Sharpless, Pinkerton and his wife in the garden. Suzuki is asked to persuade Butterfly to hand over her son to Pinkerton's wife. A self-pitying Pinkerton sings a sad "Addio, fiorita asil" (farewell, home of flowers) and leaves Suzuki to tell Butterfly what she must do.
London Opera's intimate production had a fine Butterfly in Fabienne Borget, whose image and voice fit the role. Her light soprano worked well in the entrance aria ("Ancora un passo or via" - another step) and lent itself to Butterfly's touching request of Pinkerton to love her "a little, as a child." Borget began the famous aria "Un bel di" softly almost as a lullaby to Suzuki, summoning the necessary vocal power as she strengthened her conviction in the aria.
It's often said that Suzuki is the one who truly loves Butterfly. As Suzuki, Fiona MacDonald offers a convincing portrayal. Francis Church is an effective Sharpless, displaying a resonant baritone. Tenor Lindsey Day proved an adequate Pinkerton, although his voice seemed a bit light. Marion Oberfrank was perhaps the best Butterfly's son I've seen, undoubtedly making his father - conductor Peter Oberfrank - proud.
Everyone can be proud of this production.
The Distinguished Artists season will conclude April 12.