I have never been to the Palm Beach Opera before. Never made the one-hour drive (an hour and a half in traffic) north to the Kravis Center. That's partly because it's such a schlep. But it's mostly because, up until this season, I only knew about the Florida Grand Opera. I thought that, aside from the Met's Live in HD transmissions, that was all the opera we had here. (Don't get me wrong, though. I'm not complaining about either one of those.) Well, that's all changed now. Because on my journey to discover every last bit of opera in South Florida, I not only stumbled upon PBO and the wonderful season they have planned, I was fortunate enough to attend the final dress rehearsal of Madama Butterfly last night. And after that performance, I will not think twice before making the trek to West Palm Beach again.
Palm Beach Opera opens its 2011-2012 season tonight with Puccini's tragic masterpiece. Madama Butterfly, which premiered in 1904, is one of the most frequently performed operas today. Although it was originally composed in two acts, Puccini later revised it and divided the second act into two separate acts. It is the three-act version that is most commonly performed, although while some opera companies take a short intermission between Acts II and III, others present them both together. (PBO does the latter, and the effect is overwhelming. But more on that later.)
First, the set. The stage was very simple and uncluttered. The scenery consisted of sliding screens, as in most productions of Butterfly. But these screens were beautifully detailed, and provided a very authentic atmosphere. The costumes, too, were very beautiful, and the careful attention to detail, especially in mannerisms, all made it so real. But back to the setting. In the middle of this simple, beautiful Japanese home, Pinkerton arrived accompanied by a collection of American furnishings, and immediately set the tone for the rest of the opera. He very clearly had no respect for his Japanese hosts, and the incompatibility of the two cultures was subtly yet clearly portrayed with simple movements and gestures. For example, upon meeting Suzuki, he offered his hand to shake, and was startled when she did not accept, but rather responded with a bow. There was a complete disconnect between East and West, and it was played out perfectly throughout the entire performance.
Now the music. First of all, Palm Beach Opera has an excellent orchestra, and under the baton of Maestro Bruno Aprea, they played marvelously. Not once did I find myself thinking, as I often do during a performance, that a given passage should have been played faster or slower, louder or softer. It was, in other words, exactly how Madama Butterfly should be played, at least to my ears.
Next, the singers. The supporting cast were all very good. As this was a dress rehearsal, some of them chose not to sing at full volume. This was barely noticeable, however, as everything blended together so beautifully to really be almost perfect. The Bonzo, sung by Valentin Vasiliu, was particularly powerful, and Irene Roberts was absolutely lovely as Suzuki. The part of Sharpless was sung well by Michael Chioldi, and while at times I felt he could have put more power into it, I assume that he was simply preserving his voice for the weekend run.
Next, Cio-Cio-San. Where to begin? First, Opening Night will star Maria Luigia Borsi. Last night, however, the beautiful Butterfly was sung by soprano Michele Capalbo, who will also be performing on Saturday night. And I'll tell you this: anyone attending that evening is in for a real treat. Beautiful, delicate, heartwrenching, and any other word you could associate with Butterfly could be applied to her performance. Her voice is powerful, yet exceedingly gentle and full of innocence. She floated gracefully through the opera, and one could almost believe, while watching her, that she really was the naive fifteen-year-old Geisha. She wrung tears from my eyes long before the full extent of the tragedy was known to her, and her final moments were simply devastating. Here she is, singing Un Bel Di from Act II.
And finally, little Dolore. The child was so beautiful, and played along charmingly. He played with the flower petals, wrapped himself in an American flag, and waited patiently for his father. After the performance, I learned that "he" was played by a little girl. Apparently they sit still and follow directions better than little boys do. (I don't know, my four-year-old boy would have probably been up for the task. He would come out, see the audience, realize he was in an opera, and burst out singing Ferrando... Oh, wait. That would be exactly what he's NOT supposed to do. So yeah, I guess little girls are better at following directions, after all.)
I left the Kravis Center choked up and with teary eyes. I drove home in silence, not wanting to ruin the effect of the evening, spending the hour-long drive reliving some of the most beautiful moments in my head. Madama Butterfly is one of my favorite operas, and Palm Beach Opera offers a moving, stunningly gorgeous performance. This is not one to miss, even if you do have to drive an hour and a half to get there. It is well worth the time.