The Minnesota Orchestra ended its 35th annual Sommerfest at Orchestra Hall Saturday night, offering to an enthusiastic capacity audience a large and festive dose of racism, bigotry, imperialism, suicide and deftly-sung high notes.
This was, of course, “Madame Butterfly,” Puccini’s tear-inducing opera about an American serviceman who buys a 15-year-old Japanese girl, then leaves her, pregnant and outcast by her family, while he returns home to acquire “a real American wife,” meaning, we all know, a white American wife.
Beloved as “Butterfly” is, a betting man might have wagered that this isn’t an opera that is best — or even adequately - experienced — with singers and orchestra sharing space on a bare concert stage, the singers moving about more or less at random. Much of the charm and dramatic weight of this particular opera comes from its sense of place, from its exotic colors and its depiction of culture clash. Without sets and costumes and thoughtful staging, the work might seem to lack essential atmosphere.
The surprise Saturday night was in how much impact “Butterfly” could have in this limited format. This was due partly to the compelling and superbly-sung performances in the two lead roles — Kelly Kaduce as Butterfly and Carl Tanner as Pinkerton, the American — along with mostly excellent work from the supporting cast. Beyond that, much credit has to go to conductor Andrew Litton for his alternately subtle and vigorous and impressively idiomatic pacing of the score and his drawing forth the kind of alert, polished orchestral playing that every “Butterfly” performance should receive.
Kaduce’s Butterfly is no stranger here. She sang the role twice for Minnesota Opera, in 2004 and 2012, in a thoughtful staging by the late Colin Graham, and she has performed it elsewhere.
She seems now to fully occupy the character. She is perhaps the finest Butterfly of her generation. Believable as a girlish and shy 15-year-old geisha when she first meets Pinkerton, she grows into a figure of deeply affecting tragic stature when, at the end, she kills herself so that Pinkerton and his wife can take her child home to America. The death was beautifully managed. Kaduce simply raised her arms above her head and, wearing long sleeves, slowly dropped her arms, enclosing herself, as if an actual butterfly were folding its wings and dying.
Few soprano parts are as demanding on the voice as this one. Kaduce was equal to the challenge, however, and her voice, essentially a spinto lyric soprano with a silvery tone, proved to be both flexible and attractive. Her “Un bel di,” though beautifully sung, was a portrait of desperation — a woman creating for herself the illusion that Pinkerton will return.
Tanner’s big, resonant tenor with its heroic high notes was another great asset Saturday night. His Pinkerton wasn’t a cad at the start but simply an arrogant and impatient young man and, at the end, totally distraught at what he has done. Stephen Powell was a sensitive Sharpless, and Kelley O’Connor a sympathetic Suzuki. The members of the Minnesota Chorale contributed warm sounds in the choral passages.
For Litton, concluding his 13th year as artistic director of Sommerfest, this was a demanding weekend. Friday night he led the orchestra in persuasive readings of works by Copland and Dvorak and, quite impressively, conducted Gershwin’s Concerto in F while playing the solo part, a task not often attempted. As he has shown in the past, Litton is a first-rate pianist with a special flair for Gershwin. His playing embodies what Abram Chasins said of Gershwin’s own playing, that he was the only pianist who could make a piano laugh.
Litton’s concerto was just right, both precise and yet with an aura of spontaneity. As an encore, he played a rambunctious and hard-swinging transcription of Oscar Peterson’s recording of “Lulu’s Back in Town” from Litton’s fine recent CD of Peterson solos.
Michael Anthony is a Minneapolis writer.