By Richard Houdek
THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE
PITTSFIELD — The Berkshire Opera entered the world of Giacomo Puccini Thursday evening, not on cautious tiptoes like some provincial lyric-theatre outpost, but as the adventurous 21st century company that it is exhibiting signs of becoming.
In staging "Madama Butterfly," Gregory Keller stripped away many of the clichés that have been identified with Americanized Japan productions of the opera over the years, and Dipu Gupta followed suit with a freshly conceived setting, tossing out the physical silliness associated with it — the cute little paper houses, footbridges, straw mats and shoji screens that have become more distracting than functional.
Everything necessary for a powerful "Butterfly" may be found in Puccini's richly endowed score and Luigi Illica's and Giuseppe Giacosa's incisive libretto, and those finally are the bases of the welcome effort now underway in the Koussevitzky Arts Center at Berkshire Community College.
A two-step platform provides the centerpiece for unfolding the tale of Cio-Cio San, the poor, but proud Japanese teenaged geisha called Butterfly, who falls in love and enters an arranged marriage with an American naval officer. And Keller's mise en scéne delivers the action often painfully close to the audience through a set of ramps that connect the stage, the aisles and auxiliary mini-stages on each side, providing opportunities occasionally to glimpse emotional countervailing activities.
Digging into the heritage of the title character, Keller has made use of Japanese theater techniques, so that movement, especially among the indigenous, often is very slow and stylized.
Choreographer Paul Chuey and three other dancers set the scene before the initial downbeat with a prelude of Kabuki movement as the audience is filing into the theater, setting the tone of the evening's proceedings, and a short sequence depicts the suicidal death of Butterfly's father.
The dancers return periodically, clad in eerie white raiment, moving about in upright deliberative patterns or slow crawling formations as Butterfly's often disturbed ancestors, finally dragging her to eternal rest.
Fine singing actors are essential to a production of this nature, and generally Berkshire Opera upholds its tradition in this respect. Sandra Lopez brought to her first Cio-Cio San a luminous soprano, gorgeously even from top to bottom, also displaying courage, as did her colleagues, in negotiating the treacherous aisle steps as she made a graceful entrance from the rear of the theater moving slowly toward the stage. Her compelling "Un bel di" opened the soul of a woman still hopeful of recapturing her dream of life.
John Bellemer offered the physical presence and requisite combination of loveable heel nonchalance and ultimate abject contrition of Lt. B.F. Pinkerton, yet his rather grainy tenor voice seemed imprisoned in the throat, lacking the necessary focus, especially in the higher register.
Suzuki, the anchor of Butterfly's small household, was portrayed touchingly by a gifted mezzo-soprano, Mika Shigematsu, encompassing obvious early suspicions of Pinkerton and the consuming anguish at Butterfly's fate.
The sonorous baritone and a superb actor, Troy Cook, turned in another fine performance, as Sharpless, the American Consul.
Jason Ferrante's impersonation of Goro, the Marriage Broker, suggested again a bright future in the valuable league of character tenors.
Although the air conditioning system failed to function on Thursday evening, a chill nevertheless momentarily struck the atmosphere when the superb bass Andrew Gangestad, as The Bonze, Butterfly's angered uncle, made his entrance from the back of the theater. He, too, is someone to watch.
Of the two members of the company's Resident Artist Program, mezzo Jennifer Berkebile made a credible Kate Pinkerton, while baritone John Fulton delivered a mellow timbre to the dual roles of the Commissioner and Prince Yamadori, but seemed to find the Japanese movement less congenial.
Kathleen Kelly, the company's music director, adeptly managed coordination between the various stage locations and the pit with its larger-than-usual aggregation of 30 instrumentalists.
Thursday's opening night performance was sold out, and the enthusiastic audience appeared to recognize that, in this "Butterfly," Berkshire Opera has turned an important corner.
Promised productions next summer include "Little Women," Mark Adamo's engaging 1998 opera based on Louisa May Alcott's novel, and, yes, Puccini's "La Bohéme."