Friday, November 1, 2019

Keller's acoustic does in Madama Butterfly

Luis Chapa as B.F. Pinkerton and Hiromi Omura as Cio-Cio-San in Portland Opera's 2019 production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Photo by Cory Weaver/Portland Opera.

The barn-like acoustic of the Keller Auditorium presents a lot of challenges for opera productions, especially when the orchestra goes full tilt. That was the case with Portland Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly on opening night (October 25). The orchestra, guided by assistant conductor Nicholas Fox, who replaced an ailing George Manahan, created a vivid account, but quite often the voices of the principal characters, with the exception of Luis Chapa’s Pinkerton, got lost in the vastness of the hall. The lack of vocal oomph lessened the impact of the tragic story, despite astute stage directions from E. Loren Meeker.

The performance marked the U.S. debut of Hiromi Omura in the title role. The Japanese native, who now lives primarily in France, sang impeccably, but she needed to be louder. Mexican tenor Chapa (in his company debut) had no such problem and conveyed the culturally obtuse and cruel Pinkerton with carefree ease. At the curtain call, the audience rained boos and applause on him, which he accepted with gallantry.

Other Portland Opera debuts included Nina Yoshida Nelsen, who created a sympathetic and conflicted Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San’s servant. Troy Cook’s gorgeously resonant baritone fit the role of Sharpless like a glove. Peixin Chen’s Bonze needed more vocal heft. It just wasn’t damning enough. Karl Marx Reyes was totally convincing as the greedy marriage broker Goro.

The chorus, prepared expertly by Fox, sounded terrific, generating a lovely “Humming Chorus,” and the women were almost scary in their denunciation of Cio-Cio-San when her uncle more or less excommunicates her

Under Meeker’s directions, Cio-Cio-San’s son was on stage for a much longer period than I have seen in other productions. That went surprisingly well.

The production, a revival of scenery and costumes originally constructed for New York City Opera but now owned by Portland Opera, beautifully evoked the bay below and the hillside above Cio-Cio-San’s house. A little bridge, garden, and a tree attractively graced a traditional-looking Japanese home. All was deftly lit by designer Mark McCullough.

Madama Butterfly is the first opera to be performed under the reign of Portland Opera’s new general director, Sue Dixon. As good as the performance was, Dixon still has to deal with the problem of Keller Auditorium’s size and poor acoustic. Good luck!

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