Minnesota Opera is ending its 49th season on a high note: a poignant, sensitively staged, adroitly sung revival of its 2004 production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly."
The late Colin Graham, the revered English director, staged this "Butterfly" the first time around. This is an opera whose story is so direct and affecting that it doesn't easily lend itself to heavy directorial and ideological concepts. Simple and truthful is better in the case of "Butterfly," and Graham, it would seem, held that view.
Neil Patel's set, made up chiefly of interlocking Japanese screens, forms a back-drop for the characters' uncluttered, flowing movements, some of which show off a touch of Kabuki theater. It's obvious that Graham, a practicing Buddhist, knew a thing or two about Japanese culture, the result of which is that it's almost as if we're seeing the story from a Japanese point of view rather than from the perspective of an Italian -- Puccini himself -- or of an American, that of Lt. Pinkerton, the Naval officer who buys the 15-year-old Butterfly and then leaves her, pregnant and outcast by her family, while he returns home to acquire "a real American wife."
With Graham's death in 2007, E. Reed Fisher, who was the director's assistant here in 2004, has taken over the production, which has been rented by a number of other opera companies. He has sustained Graham's concept and infused some subtleties of his own.
None of these subtleties, of course, would have much effect without a strong performance in the title role, one of the most demanding soprano parts in the entire repertoire. Kelly Kaduce, who sang the role to wide acclaim here eight years ago, was center stage at Saturday's performance. Attractive and slender, singing with a luminous, well-focused tone -- she's essentially a spinto lyric soprano -- excelling in both introspective passages and the more dramatic outbursts, Kaduce makes an almost perfect Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly). She handles the distinctive geisha body language with grace, and, though she skips the optional high D-flat at the end of her entrance aria, she sings a radiant "Un bel di," turning it into a poignant and almost desperate affirmation of deluded hopes rather than a diva showcase. Perhaps the evening's most touching moment comes a bit later. Realizing that Pinkerton has returned after three years, she runs outside and dances in a circle -- rapturously -- as a shower of cherry blossoms gently falls on her, as if from the heavens.
Arturo Chacon-Cruz was an especially sensitive Pinkerton -- not the usual vulgar cad, the Ugly American, rather an arrogant, uninformed, basically clueless young man who, on his return, is genuinely distraught over the situation he has created. And he sang with full-bodied Italianate passion along with warm, rich tone and thrilling top notes. Levi Hernandez portrayed a kindly Sharpless, the American consul, singing with appealing resonance, and Mika Shigematsu was the devoted Suzuki, whose Cherry Duet with Kaduce was exquisitely sung.
The rest contributed mightily - John Robert Lindsey (a droll Goro), Joseph Beutel (the Bonze), Gabriel Preisser (Yamadori) and Angela Mortellaro (Kate). Conductor Michael Christie, who was named the company's music director in January, drew a vigorous, well-paced, opulent performance from the orchestra.
The production, sung in Italian with English surtitles, uses mostly the 1906 score, the one that Puccini re-wrote after the failure of the original production two years earlier. What's different is the combining of Acts 2 and 3, which turns out to be surprisingly effective. Rather than taking an intermission, we see Butterfly's growing fear, having waited all night, that Pinkerton might not show up.