Butterfly Season 

Nashville Opera gives a Puccini masterpiece its due

Were those boos that greeted tenor Stephen Mark Brown following his performance last week in Madame Butterfly? The answer is yes, but fear not: TPAC hasn’t morphed into La Scala, the Italian venue where vocalists are sometimes treated like wrestlers. And Brown didn’t give a lousy performance.

Were those boos that greeted tenor Stephen Mark Brown following his performance last week in Madame Butterfly? The answer is yes, but fear not: TPAC hasn’t morphed into La Scala, the Italian venue where vocalists are sometimes treated like wrestlers. And Brown didn’t give a lousy performance.

Rather, he fully inhabited his role as B.F. Pinkerton, the young American naval officer who seduces and then abandons the trusting Butterfly. Pinkerton’s utter callousness sets the geisha on her inexorable course of doom. And since Brown’s Pinkerton was such a convincing cad, he was met during the final curtain with the catcalls his character deserved.

There was a lot more to admire in this Butterfly, Nashville Opera’s final production of the season. The costumes were colorful, the orchestral playing expressive and the singing good—though never great. But ultimately it was the acting that distinguished the performance, and for that we have to thank stage director John Hoomes.

He called on his cast to act like real warmed-blooded people. So Pinkerton wasn’t a mustache-twirling villain, but rather a jerk who was also capable of having genuine feelings for Butterfly. Similarly, Sharpless (baritone Frank Hernandez), the ineffectual American consul at Nagasaki, didn’t passively watch the tragedy unfold but actually agonized over it. Even Prince Yamadori (bass-baritone Brian Kontes), the lovelorn suitor who’s perhaps the most Eeyore-like character in all opera, seemed to have more gravitas.

Of course, the toughest part belongs to Butterfly. The role demands a soprano who can nail a stratospheric high A while also convincing us she’s 15. (Moreover, it requires a soprano who can make us believe she’s Japanese when singing in Italian.) Soprano Kallen Esperian was perhaps a bit too sophisticated to be a gullible teen, but there was no doubting the emotional intensity she brought to Butterfly. It made the geisha’s tragic end seem all the more inevitable.

Esperian, a Memphis soprano making her Nashville debut, was certainly the best of the singers. She sang with a lustrous sound that shimmered in soft passages—those pianissimo notes at the beginning of “Un bel di” seemed to float effortlessly above the stage. Brown was slightly less successful as Pinkerton. His notes sounded pinched and unfocused at the beginning, but he soon warmed up, and by the end of Act 1 was in full vocal bloom.

Other notable vocal performances came from Hernandez, who sang with a warmly resonant baritone, and Jennifer Hines (as the servant Suzuki), who revealed an unusually smoky mezzo-soprano. Kontes’ bass-baritone was too small to rattle the rafters in his role as The Bonze (Butterfly’s stentorian uncle), but it was nicely expressive in his dual role as Yamadori. The rest of the singers—tenor Dean Anthony (the marriage broker Goro), mezzo-soprano Crystal Jarrell (Kate Pinkerton) and baritone Gregory Gerbrandt (Imperial Commissioner)—gave worthy performances.

Visually, this Butterfly was uneven. Susan Memmott Allred’s costumes were imaginative and original—I’ve seen Goro decked out both in Western clothes (his usual attire) and in Japanese garb but never in a mixture of the two. And I’ve never seen The Bonze—that embodiment of ancient Japanese culture—look so feral and menacing.

But Boyd Ostroff and Kevin Baratier’s scenery, while mostly believable, was also a bit strange—did they mean for that big Japanese tree to look like a duck? Likewise, the shooting star that bounced to the ground like a Ping-Pong ball elicited more than a few unintended laughs.

Fortunately, there were no problems with the orchestra. Conductor Mark Flint led the Nashville Symphony Orchestra with color and energy, making Puccini’s opera score sound almost like a prismatic Strauss tone poem. It made for a memorable season ender.

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