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Pittsburgh Opera's 'Madama Butterfly' is timeless tale

| Thursday, Oct. 4, 2018, 12:03 a.m.
Dina Kuznetsova as Cio-Cio San and Cody Austin as Lt. B.F. Pinkerton in Pittsburgh Opera’s “Madama Butterfly.”
David Bachman Photography
Dina Kuznetsova as Cio-Cio San and Cody Austin as Lt. B.F. Pinkerton in Pittsburgh Opera’s “Madama Butterfly.”

Giacomo Puccini was a consummate master of the theater. After seeing the play “Madama Butterfly” in London in 1900, which is about a tragic love between a young Japanese woman and an American naval officer, he had his publisher secure the rights. The result is one of opera’s most riveting experiences.

“The love duet at the end of Act I is Puccini’s most beautiful love duet,” says conductor Antony Walker. “Nothing else is as extended or as heartfelt, or rises to such an incredible climax.”

Pittsburgh Opera will present Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” Oct. 6, 9, 12 and 14 at Pittsburgh’s Benedum Center. The cast features Dina Kuznetsova as Cio-Cio San (Madama Butterfly), Cody Austin as Lt. B.F. Pinkerton, and Laurel Semerdjian as Suzuki.

The Italian opera is set in Nagasaki, Japan, where Lt. Pinkerton has leased a house, which comes with three servants. He’s also arranged to purchase a wife, Cio-Cio San, who is 15 and become a geisha after her respectable family lost its standing. She renounces her faith to marry Pinkerton. Act II takes place three years later, as she waits with their child for his return. But when he does it’s with his American wife to take the child. Her hopes become illusions, she takes her life with the same knife used by her father when he committed suicide.

Cio-Cio San’s inner strength is her most important quality, according to Kuznetsova.

“She never betrays the core of her being. It starts with her falling in love with this young American lieutenant,” says the soprano. “She converts and get thrown out of her society but she finds the strength to move on. When at the end there is no dignified way for her to go on, she finds the strength to take her life to make a life for her son. For all the drama and tragedy, beautiful music and emotions, it is important to find the core that makes her who she is.”

Every moment in the opera can feel like a highlight, according to the singer. But the first of two of her favorite moments is when Cio-Cio San sings in Act I of her vision of her future with Pinkerton: “always together, loving each other and kneeling before God together.”

Kuznetsova’s second example is in the last scene, when Pinkerton returns to Nagasaki with his American wife.

“The music slows down. She’s almost monosyllabic. Seeing this crushing of her hopes, the music slows down. Her voice slows down. It’s a really heartbreaking, intricate part. I really love it,” say Kuznetsova.

Pittsburgh Opera’s production is traditional, according to stage director Linda Brovsky.

“We’re exploring the human relations and not taking everything at surface value. We’re also trying to honor the Japanese culture,” she says.

Brovsky, like Walker, is returning to “Butterfly” after many years working on other pieces. The first time she staged the opera she studied with a geisha to deepen her understanding of the culture.

“Now I’ve come back to this opera after a 12-year hiatus,” she says. “With a fresh eye, I’m struck by how much social relevance this opera about understanding other cultures has today.”

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