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MARCH 11, 2011

Concert review: ‘Butterfly’ takes flight…

Director David Grabarkewitz, the New York City Opera resident director tasked two years ago with preventing EPO’s own seppuku, took over a company at least $80,000 in the hole. He and his board did just about everything to turn things around — slashing the budget, creating cost-cutting creative alliances, staging cheaper special events (instead of costly full operas, which can run up to $200,000 to stage) and working the town and their rich friends mercilessly for donors and new audiences.

He went into this production knowing the debt was basically erased, or at least largely gone, but without much room to spare. Grabarkewitz called on some old friends from past New York City Opera “Butterflys” for his principles, including Chinese soprano Shu-Ying Li from the 2008 production that won an Emmy for PBS’ “Masterpiece Theatre.” He fleshed out the cast with cheaper local voices, most from UTEP or with connections to the university.

Soprano Shu-Ying is the star here (she’ll be replaced by New Yorker and El Paso native Barbara Divis for the Sunday matinee). Sure, she plays the title role, but Shu-Ying has the most beautiful, expressive and powerful voice in the bunch, with the commanding presence to match it.

Her Butterfly is driven by a passionate faith. She evolves from a gushy geisha girl entranced by her towering American suitor in the first act to a downtrodden young mother who animatedly believes her faith will be rewarded in the second, only to indignantly end it all in the third when she has to surrender her appropriately named son, Sorrow.

Her “Un Bel Di,” the aria from the second act that is this opera’s most popular, was both sweetly beautiful and the perfect showcase for her rich, nuanced soprano. But Shu-Ying proved a powerful duet partner, too, discreetly pulling back to avoid overshadowing her co-star, Russian tenorKonstantin Stepanov (Pinkerton), during their lengthy love duet at the end of Act I.

She harmonized seamlessly with Japanese mezzo-soprano Mika Shigematsu, who plays Butterfly’s loyal maid, Suzuki. Their joyous duet as they prepare for Pinkerton’s return in the second act was one of the highpoints of Thursday’s performance.

Shu-Ying has a natural acting ability that doesn’t bely her vocal chops. She makes Cio-Cio San a living, breathing tragic character, with all the joy, sorrow and nobility required. Though the suicide scene is the most dramatic, her most impressive work was the most subtle — a simple change of expression at bad news, or the beam of delight when she thinks her beloved has finally come back for her. Her standing ovation at the dramatic finish was well earned.

Shu-Ying is complemented by Shigematsu, who plays Suzuki as a dowdy, faithful assistant who knows Pinkerton isn’t sincere but tries to keep Butterfly’s spirits up all the same. Bariton Nicholas Pallesen makes Sharpless’ conflicts palpable while keeping his own vocal power in check so as not to upstage any of the others….

The stage set is inventively simple, with three main staging areas including two circular, slightly raised platforms on either side of the front of the stage and a third connected by steps to a catwalk through which cast members entered and exited.

Scenic designer Julia Noulin-Merat’s bigger achievement is a series of large fusana, or Japanese sliding doors typical of the 19th century setting. They loomed from the top to the bottom of the stage, forming a kind of wall to separate the larger action from the more intimate scenes.

They also doubled as a large-scale canvas for lighting designer Barry Steele’s evocative color splotches and video imagery, which included a star-crossed wedding night and Butterfly’s eerie, silent movie-like romantic fever dreams.

There’s no illusions about EPO’s “Madama Butterfly.” Opera is back after a two-year absence, and that’s a dream come true for starving aficionados.

Copyright 2011 El Paso Times

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