Opera North does Puccini

Opera North staged performances of Puccini's Madama Butterfly and Mozart's The Magic Flute this year. As a general comment, the singers, especially the guest artists, were up to their assignments and then some. Fine performances aside, visual productions seemed not as good as the musical aspect of Opera Norths productions. I do not wish to say that the stage direction was poor it was not there were some true moments of enlightenment. Even though Yoshinori Tanokura has been designer for the company for some time, he has had fewer successes. The costuming for Flute was of the grab-bag variety; despite the latitude that I am more than willing to give to someone costuming this work. I found Taminos costume in the first act irrelevant to the proceedings. The women fared better. Butterfly: The Pinkerton for this performance was Hugo Vera; he hit the stage running in a performance that never varied from vocal excellence and some histrionic overindulgence. Granted this is a melodrama; this is one of David Belascos most soap-opera works, and thats also one of Puccinis great potboilers. One of Veras strengths as a performer was to focus all of the ugly American attention onto himself, and thus to throw Butterfly's woes into high relief. The fact that Pinkerton can be direct and honest with Sharpless even before the wedding helps us to see unmistakably that Butterfly doesnt know what shes getting into. The Sharpless of Diego Matamoros was both more willing to support the Pinkerton in what he was doing, but at the same time seeing the potential for a tragedy by his reiteration of questions to Pinkerton about Butterfly's understanding of their marriage contract. He has a gorgeous voice which he used to its best throughout the performance. Cynthia Hanna was Suzuki. Even though this is a background role of sorts, she was unusually reticent dramatically. She sang admirably, however, and sang perfectly on pitch through the treacheries of the flower duet. Olga Chernisheva was the eponymous heroine. Her singing of Butterfly's entrance was a bit shaky and had the vocal edginess that makes some Russian voices sound particularly harsh when they sing in Italian, but by the time she got to her major aria in the second act, her singing was very Italianate. Her histrionic performance was quite a good evolution from love and innocence to bitterness and anger. Also outstanding in the production was Casey Finnigan as Goro and Michael Ventura as the Bonze. The orchestra, under the direction of Louis G. Burkot played with some distinction. Ron Luchsinger did his usual first-rate job in the staging. Flute: This was one of the finest overall casts that the Opera North organization has put together, starting with the absolutely splendid and rock-solid vocally, superbly appropriate looking Tamino of Daniel Holmes. He sang with a vocal luster that spun out all of Mozart's lines to the best possible effect, and he performed as an actor with the same certainty that he used with his voice. He was in most respects the star of the evening. His nearest rival was his Pamina, sung by soprano Laura Choi Stuart, whose arrival on stage was instantly felt. From her first sung words, she also captivated us with her voice. From start to finish, she was a marvelous, innocent Pamina, who, despite the exaggerated and pervasive misogyny of the text (or of the supertitles), wins over all sides and stands side he sided with her husband at the end. The word 'subtle' and the character Papageno don't necessarily belong in the same sentence. Baritone Sydney Outlaw gave us a wonderful mixture of the two now brash and Jamaican and in-your-face; then all vocal marvel (in his plaintive desire for a little wife). All evening long he managed his precarious balance without once causing the audience to feel as though they were watching a tight rope walker. He was terrific. Michael Ventura also made an impact as Sarastro, using his wonderful dark range successfully. The Papagena of Sarah Asmar was well sung and acted. The Queen of the Night of Elizabeth Andrews Roberts was up to speed, handling her two arias quite well. The three ladies and the three guides were all well cast, the Monostatos of Mo El Zein made the most of this equivocal character, but he should have been made out to appear uglier. The orchestra under Burkot played lustrously. The stage direction by Luchsinger was at his very best, making the most of a too-small stage, and I left the Lebanon Opera House exhilarated at the absolute musicianship of all of the participants in this production. Well, perhaps without including the people who designed the production visually (see above). There are performances of 'Butterfly' on Aug. 22 at 7:30 p.m., and of 'Flute' on Aug. 23, both at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. The box office number is: 603-448-0400. It is well worth the trip. Briefly noted: A production of Puccini's La Bohè­¥ has performances this week in Middlebury's Town Hall Theater. Doug Anderson is a masterful stage director, so the production should be of significant interest locally. See: OperaCompanyofMiddlebury.org for details. Burlington resident Dan Wolfe observes and critiques the local arts scene for the Times Sentinel. His column appears weekly.

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