1920 Nagasaki, Japan met 2018 Westfield, New Jersey in the town’s Presbyterian Church-turned-concert hall, March 3, in a brilliant, fully staged production of the opera, Madama Butterfly, featuring the New Jersey Festival Orchestra under the direction of David Wroe. Attending a Wroe concert is akin to flying on a plane with Rolls-Royce engines. You know there is never going to any kind of failure.
The orchestra offered a full sound that clearly resonated throughout and filled the hall, despite being quite small at 17 musicians: seven strings, four woodwinds, four brass, a timpanist and a harp. These musicians were of such high quality — accurate, tonal and well prepared — that they sounded like a full orchestra.
They were equaled by the exquisite vocalists who sang the beautiful leading arias, duets, trios and ensembles. The slowly unfolding drama, combined with the lyrical orchestra and vocalists, lead to a glorious sound in this ultimately tragic opera.
The superb leading voices of the evening included soprano Asako Tamura as Cio-Cio-san, the bride and main character of the opera; mezzo-soprano Sabina Kim as Cio-Cio-san’s maid, Suzuki; tenor Noah Stewart as the U.S. Naval officer Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton; baritone Kyle Albertson as Sharpless, the U.S. Consul in Nagasaki; tenor John Easterlin as Goro, the marriage broker; and 14 other supporting solo and ensemble voices.
The combination of music director Wroe and artistic and stage director Maria Todaro could not have resulted in a better amalgamation of music and drama. The true genius of this production lay in its simplicity — the small but forceful orchestra, the sparse but evocative stage settings and costumes. This clarity drew the audience’s focus from the elegant but simple and sobering Calvinist church interior to the colorful scenes of a highly dramatic, exotic, neo-Imperialistic era wedding in 1920 Japan.
Todaro created a believable and interesting set and staging for the three acts and various scenes of the opera, utilizing not only the stage itself, but the entire hall including the main aisle and the balcony of the church where various characters would appear, walking or running through the audience in immediate and thrilling connection with them.
The tragic opera — written in 1903 by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini — tells the story of a young American officer (Pinkerton) and his visit to Japan, where he marries a 15-year-old Japanese girl (Cio-Cio-san) in an off-the-cuff marriage arranged through the local broker (Goro).
Pinkerton departs after the marriage with a promise to return. Not taking the marriage seriously, he returns a few years later with his new American wife only to discover that Cio-Cio-san has not only taken her marriage vows seriously, but has had a son by Pinkerton, and both were eagerly and loyally awaiting his return. The tragic ending, of course, comes with the ultimate fulfillment of the Japanese sentiment, death before dishonor, ending the opera in terrible uproar and tragedy.
Wroe collected some beautiful lyrical and character voices for his musical presentation. Easterlin presented Goro strong and clear, resounding in the hall. Stewart showed up onstage as Pinkerton completely warmed up and ready to go with a full, vigorous, rich and exciting tenor voice and stage presentation. Their pitch and tonal quality was outstanding and set the stage for the vocal excellence to come.
The entrance of Cio-Cio-san, the Butterfly, and her entourage was elegant — processing down the center aisle of the hall to beautiful melodic vocal and orchestral lines. Tamura, who comes from Kyoto, Japan, offered the audience a compelling vocal and dramatic character. Her voice was accurate in pitch, highlighting great control, as well as tonally rich and flowingly lyrical in interpretation.
Tamura is an accomplished and sought after voice in music today and has performed as the Butterfly at the Royal Albert Hall in London, the Baltimore Lyric Opera and the Hungarian State Opera House in Budapest. She also has sung in many other esteemed concert venues, including the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in New York.
The presentation of Madama Butterfly at the Westfield Presbyterian Church was a true treat for New Jersey Festival Orchestra supporters and concertgoers from local towns and afar. The audience was thrilled and appreciative and showed it with a long standing ovation.
The New Jersey Festival Orchestra will continue to honor its season theme of “Voices of Distinction” with its end-of-season concerts highlighting excerpts from the great Four Last Songs by Richard Strauss and two other English works, Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture and Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 2, May 20 at The Presbyterian Church in Westfield and May 21 at the Concert Hall at Drew University in Madison. Visit njfestivalorchestra.org.
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