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Enchanting romance of ‘Madama Butterfly’

By Betty Ligon

Original article published 3/27/2011

“Madama Butterfly” is the first opera I ever heard. It was as a kid listening to old recordings on my grandmother’s His Master’s Voice gramophone, with a picture of a dog sitting and staring into a huge Victrola horn. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I saw a live, honest-to-goodness opera production at a university in Dallas.

As amateurish as it probably was, I was an instant fan. Since then I have seen about a half dozen productions from Santa Fe to London. The “Butterfly” staged by El Paso Opera this month matched or was more enjoyable than anything in memory.

Maybe I’m a wee bit prejudiced, rooting for the home team. But I suspect the sneaky civic pride was sparked by David Grabarkewitz, El Paso Opera’s artistic and general director.

As stage director with New York City Opera recently, his “Butterfly” won an Emmy for Best Live Performance. A dollop of lagniappe was having delectable El Paso native soprano Barbara Divis singing the title role in a third Sunday matinee performance.

This turn-of-the-century Puccini weeper clearly belonged to Chinese American Shu-Ling Li as Cio-Cio San, the charming, naive Butterfly. A seasoned performer in the role, her effective technique and melodious soprano kept us focused on the poignant story and its tragic end. She gave the heartbreaking “Un Bel Di” its poignant due, probably the opera world’s most recognized aria.

Set in Nagasaki, Japan, this popular opera narrates a story of Japanese-American customs of a century ago. Tall, handsome U.S. Naval Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton accepts the services of Goro, (Brett Colby) local marriage broker, to buy a 15-year-old Japanese girl as a bride and install her in a lovely home for his pleasure during his stay in Japan. Both could be cancelled with 30-day notice.

The other outstanding role was masterfully projected by baritone Nicholas Pallesen. His sympathetic Sharpless, a U.S. consul, offered advice to Pinkerton that the sensitive young girl would take her marriage vows seriously. It prompted a deafening round of audience applause. Konstantin Stepanov’s Pinkerton was appealing to look at and hear, but he was not up to Shu-Ling Li’s spectacular vocal standards.

Still, he showed enough pizzazz to allow his tenor to soar in the love duet with Butterfly at the end of Act I. Passionate though it was not. Good stage direction kept the illusion of lovers alive throughout the lengthy duet.

Mika Shigematsu’s soulful mezzo Suzuki as Butterfly’s loyal servant was particularly well done. She recognized the marriage was a sham and tried to convince Butterfly after Pinkerton departed that he was gone for good.

But the abandoned wife spent the next three years confident that he would return to her and the son they had produced. When he does return with an American wife to get the son Sharpless informed him about, the final suicide scene. implied without actual detail, was as appalling as any in opera history.

Most of the rest of the large cast was highly competent opera students or teachers from the University of Texas at El Paso.

The adorable child from the scam marriage called Sorrow is the real life Sam Schwartz, son of Scott and Tania, and grandson of Mickey and Susan Schwartz. Just thought you would like to know!

Aiding immeasurably in the enchanting romance were the gorgeous set and lighting effects. Scenic designer Julia Noulin-Merat turned the Chavez Theatre stage into a lovely Japanese garden leading into the airy cottage with an understated ambiance. Large sliding shoji screens at front and rear reaching from top to stage floor were moved to create separate areas.

Barry Steele provided exquisite lighting effects seen through open screens. Patricia Hibbert costumed the cast in fascinating examples of Japanese dress in the late 1800s.

Conductor Ari Pelto drew out of the orchestra a heartfelt interpretation of Puccini’s lush music.

Ever since Grabarkewitz came to El Paso from the New York City Opera in 2009, he has been a one-man band for turning ossified opera into classical entertainment for all, especially young ones, 20-45 years of age.

Faced with an $80,000 debt hanging around El Paso Opera’s neck, he began beating the band for ways to cut expenses without cutting performances.

With help from his board hitting up local arts supporters with deep pockets and a welcome bequest from a dedicated opera lover, the company was able to bring grand opera back with “Madama Butterfly.” A board member expressed delight over the estimated 5,000 seats filled for three performances.

The Sunday matinee was added after two night shows had been scheduled. I was unable to catch more than the final act with Barbara Divis as Butterfly, who is making a name for herself on the opera circuit. But it was enough to wonder why we have not seen her in past 17 EPO seasons.

But there is change in the air. The future holds untold treasures.

Copyright 2011 El Paso Inc.

Lauren Flanigan in “I Lombardi” at the Met