Review: Pittsburgh Opera presents unusual performance of 'Madama Butterfly'

| Sunday, March 17, 2013, 10:20 a.m.

The new staging of "Madama Butterfly" offered by Pittsburgh Opera for the first time on Saturday night employs some unusual musical and dramatic turns on the path to the excruciating pathos composer Giacomo Puccini created in this popular opera.

The production features an effective cast led by soprano Maria Luigia Borsi, who gave a stunningly dramatic and well sung performance of the title role, Cio-Cio San.

While the production originated with Boston Lyric Opera and the costumes were designed for Utah Symphony and Opera, Crystal Manich's new stage direction had great impact and was mostly convincing.

However after an up tempo introduction, conductor Jean-Luc Tingaud led a subdued performance of the first act on Saturday night. His sensibility was more French than Italian, a mixed blessing reflected in sonority generally and in accents which emphasized Debussian aspects of Puccini's score. The subtleties Tingaud achieved were remarkable, and delicacy is certainly apt for this score.

More detrimental was the way Tingaud held back the sweep of passion, especially in the love duet between Cio-Cio San and her new husband, U.S. Navy Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, at the end of the act.

Mika Shigematsu was superb as Cio-Cio San's servant Suzuki, a fine singer with personality who showed surprising spunkiness in her first interactions with Pinkerton and Sharpless, the U.S. Consul in Nagasaki, Japan, where the opera takes place in the late 19th century.

Tenor Bryan Hymel as Pinkerton showed his vocal strength most impressively at the end of the opera in the brief passage after Cio-Cio San has committed suicide. But most of his singing is in Act I, when Tingaud held the dynamics down and the best one can say is that none of the singers forced their tone. Hymel sang with artistry and appealing color, but it was small scale singing until the end of the first act.

Borsi's development of her character across the span of the opera was thoroughly convincing. The portrayal moved from girlish to womanly, starting with naivete but also strong will. Borsi was wonderful in Act III showing Cio-Cio San coming to understand how cruel her fate is, superb in her farewell to her son, and devastating in her death scene. Her nuances of inflection and vocal color were as full of personality as her acting. When given the chance after intermission she showed she could ride orchestral climaxes magnificently.

Secondary roles were generally well handled, including Joseph Gaines' colorful marriage broker Goro and Dwayne Croft's agonized Sharpless.

The two problematic aspects of the staging were having Cio-Cio San's son on stage for her suicide and a three-Pinkerton dream sequence after the Humming Chorus.

But Manich was masterly in presenting the dramatic confrontation between Cio-Cio San and her community after she renounces Japanese culture to become an American wife. She was imaginative in using the minimalist set and achieved strong character definition and interactions throughout.

Cindy Limauro's lighting design was exceptionally creative, adding many looks through geometrically highlighted areas of the stage and changes of lighting angle and tint.

Pittsburgh Opera's production of “Madama Butterfly” will be repeated at 7 p.m. March 19, 8 p.m. March 22, and 2 p.m. March 24 at the Benedum Center, Downtown. Admission is $10.75 to $195.75. Details: 412-456-6666 or

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