Chicago Opera Theater

The impression is widespread that Chicago Opera Theater specializes in obscure or unusual works. Perhaps this is because the number of smaller 20th-century operas presented by COT (Summer and Smoke, The Mother of Us All) assumes an exaggerated significance given the almost complete absence of those operas from the stages of larger houses. Yet it may just be that COT cuts its suit to fit its cloth. When COT presents contemporary works, it shows at least as much common sense as commitment to 20th-century repertory. Many mid- to late-20th-century works were written for a modest number of musicians, while much of the repertory of large houses is plainly unsuitable for a small company, which would have difficulty with the magnitude of the forces required.

COT has usually employed a three-pronged approach to its seasons, combining an old favorite, one comparatively obscure work, and a more contemporary piece. When picking the old favorites, COT must act with some discretion. The number of bodies required for Aida would surely drive the long-suffering priests of neighboring Saint Alphonsus (which owns the theater and parking lot) over the brink. And how would one ever shoehorn the requisite number of instrumentalists for Die Meistersinger into a pit where 40 is a crowd?

COT is now presenting a rather unexpected 20th-century work, one that falls into the old-favorite category: Puccini’s Madame Butterfly. At first glance this would appear an unlikely choice, both because the orchestra must be larger than usual and because Lyric Opera has scheduled a production for the fall. (COT could once give an English-language version of an opera to be performed by the Lyric and draw those who wanted to be better acquainted with the work, but the advent of surtitles at Lyric makes this role less important.) But COT has overcome the orchestral hurdle. And its smaller production reveals aspects of the work that often remain hidden in larger stagings. It is much easier to concentrate on the emotions of the characters when they are seen in such an intimate setting; against a grand set, the principals can seem reduced in stature.

The original Madame Butterfly got off to a shaky start with its La Scala premiere on February 17, 1904. But after the second performance in Brescia three months later, Puccini’s tearjerker quickly became beloved and entered the standard repertory. COT’s opening performance also got off to a shaky start, but it pulled together as the evening went on.

Mercifully, COT is presenting the opera in two acts, running the second and third together. Ettore Panizza’s scoring of the orchestral reduction left intact most of the virtue of Puccini’s original, and there was no nagging sense on opening night that something was missing, even though the orchestra was considerably smaller than it would have been in a more commodious pit. And resident conductor Steven Larsen kept the instrumentalists under smooth control.

Musically, the only real problems were in the first act. Both Karen Notare as Butterfly and the chorus had some pitch problems during their initial entrance. Notare also went a little overboard on her geisha-style simpering in the first act. This minor quibbling aside, Notare delivered a wonderful performance overall; she could almost pass for a 15-year-old–alternately sweet, petulant, and naive. Her intense approach seems to be based somewhat on the Callas model, and it is also worth mentioning that she has a very pretty lower range, in contrast with many sopranos who produce grating chest tones.

Randolph Locke got through the role of the cad Pinkerton with a lot of perspiration and a good deal less inspiration. While he was able to force out the high notes clearly enough, his voice had an odd buzz to it when operating at less than maximum volume.

The role of Sharpless, the American consul in Nagasaki, is difficult to handle well dramatically because the character is mostly restricted to a form of passive moral indignation. Baritone William Diana not only sang this part with clarity, but through his empathy with Butterfly also made the consul the personification of the sentiment of the audience.

The casting for this production was exceptionally strong overall, even in the relatively minor roles. Bonze was sung by Paul Geiger, a good singer who has performed leading roles in other COT productions. Alejandro Abraham, a deliciously slimy Goro, is developing into a respectable comprimario. Debra Austin, while too tall and aquiline in her features to look particularly Asian, made a good impression as the patient Suzuki. In the nonsinging category, eight-year-old Tony Massarello looked like a child half his age.

The set design by Jeff Bauer is something of a testimonial to a Miesian aesthetic. It is generally reckoned a virtue for a designer to push the music, singers, and story into the background and hog the limelight through some outlandish concept or other, yet Bauer’s simple and versatile set gently supported the opera through the spartan means of a segmented oriental painting motif as a background and some movable Japanese-style partitions on a wooden platform. Matthew Lata’s direction dovetailed neatly with Bauer’s approach, though the dream-sequence appearance of the rest of the cast in Butterfly’s mind was marred by some problem with the lighting that broke the illusion just as Pinkerton made his entrance. (I suppose it is too much to ask that Pinkerton’s naval uniforms be accurate.)

This little production probably elicited more tears per eyeball than many a star-studded production at a larger company. The appeal of the pure tearjerker has always been something of a mystery to those looking for more than pathos in an opera, but COT’s Madame Butterfly puts a fresh face on Puccini’s Japanese fantasy world and clears away some of the encrusted layers of makeup that sometimes obscure the beauty of the work.

COT continues to exist on a knife edge, and conductor Larsen made an appeal for further financial support before the second act. Butterfly’s anguish could be the key to further opening the pocketbooks of COT’s patrons.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Rest.