Madama Butterfly a Tour de Force for Rising Star Pastin
By Andy Garrigue
A review of Virginia Opera’s Madama Butterfly at the Dominion Energy Center March 31, featuring the Richmond Symphony Orchestra conducted by Adam Turner.
Because Giacomo Puccini’s masterpiece Madama Butterfly is so focused on the title character, the talent of the performer in the role is critical. To be fair, apart from the title character, there are essentially only small and cursory roles, and thus the entire production rests on the shoulders of the title performer. In a triumphant performance, that draws us in from the moment of her entrance on her wedding day, and remains riveting until her tragic last breaths, Danielle Pastin as Cio-Cio-San/Madama Butterfly, resoundingly affirms that she is a world class talent, eminently capable of bearing this opera on her shoulders, with a charisma that makes her the focus whenever she is on stage.
From her first notes, as part of that famed entrance, where she finally appears, and is finally heard, after an anticipation building procession of almost a couple dozen female family members and attendants, we are struck, indeed our breaths are nearly taken away, by the purity, quality and tone of her voice. That entrance, designed by Puccini to be emblematic of what a rare and captivating jewel her character is, displays Pastin’s as a voice that stands out from all the others, like a songbird in a forest who clearly offers the most beautiful song of all. It is not a voice that stands out from power, for her first notes are delicate, even quiet, drawing us in like a whisper. Soon enough the volume increases, the power is evident, and the emotion becomes much more complex, as she becomes much more than a naively hopeful and romantic maiden of fifteen. But we are transfixed by those initial notes, and they do not mislead. Pastin’s voice is a voice that will carry this production.
Another aspect of her talent is that Pastin quickly pulls at our heart strings with her acting. Her initial innocent, blushing, coquettish mannerisms are endearing, and she is utterly charming as an excited bride-to-be. That lightness of spirit in how we view her all too quickly turns to a sadness that gets heavier by the minute, as we sense what is to befall her. It is clear, thanks in part to the acting of Matthew Vickers as Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton, that she and Pinkerton have very different understandings of what is about to transpire, and that her hopes will never be realized.
Much of the above is conveyed silently, with an economy of gesture and expression that is a tribute to the confidence and maturity of the direction by Richard Gammon. Puccini has done such a masterful job of sketching their characters and wildly divergent hopes and motivations that very little is needed to compel a gradually increasing loathing for Pinkerton and an incrementally escalated horror at how Cio-Cio-San’s hopes and faith and self-sacrificing love will be trampled. Gammons’ direction, and Pastin’s acting, are particularly featured in the night long vigil scene, which is staged simply, but executed in a way that is touching, beautiful — and excruciating.
While Pastin is the bona fide star here, with a voice that is a joy throughout, there are many other strengths to the production. Matthew Vickers as Pinkerton deserves praise for both his acting and his powerful tenor, which is at its best in the most dramatic moments, when his desire is strongest, and his heart is filled with the thrill of the hunt.
Kristen Choi, as Madama Butterfly’s maid Suzuki, stands out, with her convincing range of emotions, tortured facial expressions that convey real pain, and passionate on-the-mark singing.
Hidenori Inoue as The Bonze, Taeeun Moon as Prince Yamadori and Catherine Goode as American wife Kate Pinkerton fully personify their small roles. Inoue is electrifying as the enraged uncle who disowns Butterfly for renouncing her ancestor’s religion, and both he and Goode are straight out of central casting in appearance, with pitch perfect costumes to boot. Moon’s voice is powerful and commanding, and he imbues his character with a regal presence. James P. McGough’s make up deserves a bow as well.
The Richmond Symphony Orchestra gives a bravura performance in rendering Puccini’s glorious music. It is quiet and understated when needed, and evocative in the rendering of traditional Japanese folk music elements which Puccini employs as colors or flavorings. Under Adam Turner’s impressive conducting, the orchestra rises and falls effortlessly, surging full bore for the climactic moments, with power and majesty.
The high point of this performance of Madama Butterfly is the long love duet concluding Act One, which includes several arias. Throughout the duet we note the marked contrast, indeed the gaping chasm, between Butterfly’s depth, commitment and sacrifice, and Pinkerton’s superficiality and lack of any of that. Part of Puccini’s genius was setting up this opposition, and then putting it to music, with both passions simultaneously on full display, yet clearly sourced from very different springs. In the closing aria, Vogliatemi bene (“Love me, please”), those two threads – Vickers’ fierce tenor, imbued with lust and pride of conquest, and Pastin’s almost otherworldly soprano, filled with a sacred and eternal commitment – come together at last in an epic crescendo, and Virginia Opera once again delivers an unforgettable “Opera Moment” in breathtaking fashion.
Andy Garrigue is an independent Opera Critic living in Richmond, VA who writes about a wide range of music, the Performing Arts and Culture.