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Wednesday, 23 April 2014 17:16

Madama Butterfly Soars

Written by  Allison Parker
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Opera Grand Rapids presents Madama Butterfly
DeVos Performance Hall, Grand Rapids
May 9 & 10, 7:30 p.m.
$21-$98, students 50 percent off, (616) 451-2741

Puccini's Madama Butterfly couldn't be more aptly named. Besides the fact that its main character's name means “butterfly” in Japanese, Madama Butterfly also has a fitting title in light of the opera’s history. Much like its namesake, Butterfly underwent a dramatic metamorphosis from a seemingly insignificant form to a vibrant mature version commanding awe and admiration.

Butterfly’s 1904 opera debut was a miserable flop underscored by scathing critical reviews and open jeers and boos from its audience. Puccini’s revised version was far more successful, but it was not until three further revisions that the opera morphed into the final version most often performed today.

Now Butterfly is a beloved repertoire staple and the seventh most performed opera in the world. Since bursting out of its originally inauspicious cocoon, Butterfly has also spread its wings beyond opera and affected other genres, inspiring such notable retellings as Miss Saigon and Memoirs of a Geisha.

In contrast to some modern adaptations, however, Opera Grand Rapids' Butterfly is traditional telling that remains faithful to Puccini’s masterful original. The story is set in Nagasaki, Japan, where teenaged geisha Cio-Cio San blissfully marries an American naval officer, Pinkerton. When Pinkerton deserts his new bride and their unborn child to go find a proper American wife, Cio-Cio San remains steadfast in her lovestruck conviction that Pinkerton will return. When Pinkerton does finally appear again, it is not to resume his life with Cio-Cio San as she assumes, but rather to take their child away with him. This devastating shock builds to a tragic climax in which Cio-Cio San’s grief drives her to a course of desperate action.

The storyline’s intense passion and ability to resonate with audiences are a large part of what has made the opera such an extraordinary standout.

It’s an universal story — the culture, if you will, of men being stationed at different ports and striking up relationships there," Conductor and Artistic Director Robert Lyall said. “It's true of every nation and every country. There isn't anyone who can't relate to this story in human terms and at large. It speaks to all ages and all cultures — it’s terrifically poignant.”

While the heavy subject matter and Italian libretto may seem overwhelming to some opera newcomers, English titles and remarkably expressive music prevent confusion and keep audiences immersed in the story.

[Madama Butterfly is] not difficult to go and sit through," Lyall said. "It's a very lush score — a fantastic opera for people who are new. The music is so vivid that it fully captures the subject and expresses it completely. The musical language is so rich and lovely that it's just going to speak to any audience ...

If you like large, colorful pieces with great emotional sweep, Madama Butterfly is wonderful. It's a work you'll enjoy the first time and the tenth time."


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