by Seth Rogovy
BERKSHIRE LIVING MAGAZINE
(PITTSFIELD, Mass.) Why stage Puccini's Madama Butterfly in 2006? Why revisit one of the most often produced -- and therefore, one of the most familiar and cliched of all repertory works in the operatic canon?
The answer, my friend, is being played out in the unlikely (and unfortunate, but more on that later) venue of the auditorium at Berkshire Community College, in a cliche-defying, provocative production by the ever-soaring Berkshire Opera Company. If until now this producing organization has been something of the forgotten junior partner to the region's major cultural venues, on the basis of this and the summer's other productions, and some very savvy and talented musical and administrative talents, this is all about to change.
And on the basis of Berkshire Opera's Madama Butterfly, what a wonderful change that is. The company has assembled an ensemble of onstage and offstage talent and put together a production that has to rank with the best in the world -- a pleasure on the ears, remarkable to behold with the eyes, and a boost to the brain and the heart.
The story is an old and familiar one, and one that has always begged for the right interpretation. Credit the powers that be here for eschewing any sort of radical interpretation in favor of an aesthetic one, for it is in the formal realms that this Madama Butterfly is such a triumph.
The directors and designers are as much the stars of this production as the terrific singer/actors. While the latter all turn in pitch-perfect performances, literally and figuratively, it is the staging, the costumes, the set, and the lighting, that lend this production its unique flavor. The bold, primary colors of the abstract backdrops contrast brilliantly with the black and white of some of the characters costumes. The set itself -- really just a few raised platforms and some runways off the stage into the theater -- takes the drama out of the realm of Oriental cliche and into the realm of transcendence, where, combined with theatrical and choreographic techniques blending Japanese Noh with state-of-the-art Europeanisms of Robert Wilson -- those intensely slow-moving, linear parades of characters on and off stage while conductor Kathleen Kelly finds surprisingly harsh, whimsical, and ironic passages buried in Puccini's surprisingly modern score -- all combine to make this Madama Butterfly a feast for the ears, the eyes, and the brain.
All the performers acquit themselves well enough so that it's hardly necessary to single any out, but John Bellemer makes for a sympathetic Lt. Pinkerton (not an easy task); Troy Cook makes for an understanding Consul Sharpless; Andrew Gangestad is a shockingly brash Bonze; and Sandra Lopez makes for a Nabokovian Cio-Cio San (that's Madama Butterly to you). All balanced the demands of their vocal roles with the dramatic, wisely subsuming the latter to the enrapturing choreography by Paul Chuey and staging by Gregory Keller.
The ONLY qualification surrounding this performance is the venue -- in future seasons, Berkshire Opera will enjoy the luxury of being able to stage performances at three fully renovated glorious theaters in the region (Mahaiwe, Colonial, and Barrington Stage), and if any three moments illustrated the need to get off the BCC campus for good, it was 1) the cold and unfriendly walk from the parking lot up the hill to the Stalinesque quadrangle that instantly instills one with the feel of Kafkaesque dread, 2) the sight of people falling down the steps of the dangerously pitched theater (not, thankfully, the actors who have to navigate those treacherous stairs), and 3) most importantly, having significant dramatic moments being played out in front of ugly, painted cinderblock walls, emergency exit doors and illuminated EXIT signs, such stark contrast to the magical world created by the set designer just a few feet away inside the proscenium arches.
But never mind all that.
With this production, Berkshire Opera once and for all clinches its place in the top tier of the region's cultural venues. At this point, anyone who does not automatically think of Berkshire Opera in the same league as Tanglewood, Jacob's Pillow, and the major summer theaters does a disservice not only to the opera company itself, but more importantly, deprives himself of some of the most original, innovative, virtuosic, and provocative art being made here in the early 21st century. Even when it's a staging of a century-old work.