“Madame Butterfly” at the Princeton Festival was world class

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"Madame Butterfly" at the Princeton Festival
Madame Butterfly at the Princeton Festival

Madame Butterfly, by Giacomo Pucchini, was not well received in its 1904 premier but quickly became a universal favorite and a staple of opera repertoires everywhere. This year’s Princeton Festival presentation was an outstanding professional production that could easily have graced any stage in the world. Some reviewers think it necessary to find some fault — any fault — with the performance they are writing about. If so, they would be frustrated by this festival offering. Every element of the show was world class; the singing of course, the orchestra, the set and costumes, the lighting — all of superb quality.

Madama Butterfly is Puccini at his most restrained. There is only one set and a simple plot with two primary characters around whom the story revolves. One need not expect the sort of spectacle offered by other works of Pucchini such as Turandot. Nonetheless Butterfly is a highly accessible and listenable opera with many wonderful elements. Perhaps the best is “Un Bel Di Vedremo,” which means “One good day, we will see.” At the beginning of Act II, it is as sad as it is beautiful. Another memorable number is the “Dovunque al mondo,” or “Throughout the world,” built on top of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Richard Tang Yuk has brought the festival to an outstanding level

We must begin by recognizing the work of Richard Tang Yuk, the overall director of the Princeton Festival and conductor of the orchestra for the opera (as well as playing the harpsichord in the Festival Baroque Orchestra.) Clearly his vision, leadership and judgment are what have brought the festival to its present outstanding level.

The title role of Madame Butterfly is a challenging one, requiring a strong voice and endurance. Yulia Lysenko, with her crystal clear soprano and riveting stage presence was brilliant in the role. Her ability to convey both ecstatic joy and the most profound sorrow brought the production to its highest level. Matthew White as the feckless and irresponsible Lt. Pinkerton both acted and sang the role of a character we love to hate with believable skill and excellent voice. Chad Armstrong was impressively aristocratic as both Prince Yamadori and the Imperial Commissioner. Janara Kellerman as the ever-present Suzuki acted the servant role to perfection. Paul LaRosa as the American consul whose warnings to Pinkerton go un-heeded brought dignity and excellent voice to the role. Wei Wu as the Bonze who attempts to break up the wedding was impressively stern with deep voice and commanding presence. Kathleen Monson as Kate Pinkerton, Anthony Webb as Goro, Scot Lee as Uncle Yakasude and Courtney Pendleton as Aunt were all excellent. Special mention must be made of Lionel Burton as Butterfly’s young son. He carried the role with a stage presence and self control that would be the envy of actors many years his senior.

Set design, lighting and costumes gave us a visual marvel

Wally Coberg (set design) and Norman Coate (lighting design) gave us a visual marvel; an exquisite set that seemed like a delicate Japanese painting brought to life. Framed by a vast, blossom covered branch that arched over the stage, Butterfly’s house was constructed in realistic detail and set against a distant background painting in classical Japanese style of the Nagasaki harbor.

Maria Miller (costumes) and Clarissa Thorlakson (wig and make-up design) outfitted the cast in magnificent finery that fully captured the elegance of traditional Japanese culture. As an example of their attention to detail, we would note the change in outfit for the American consul; formal morning coat for his appearance when he was acting in an official capacity and a tropical suit when calling on Butterfly in a personal capacity. This is the kind of thing that a lesser team might not bother with but which demonstrates a genuinely professional eye for the kind of details that tell a part of the story in and of themselves.

Keep up with future festival offerings at princetonfestival.org/