“Madama Butterfly” – Arizona Opera

Theater Review – February 6, 2017


Arizona Opera, Symphony Hall
Phoenix, AZ

Years ago in San Francisco, I attended my first professional opera featuring the brilliant soprano Leontyne Price in a beautiful staging of Puccini’s popular masterpiece “Madama Butterfly.”  What a wonderful opera to open a child to the genre.  When I arrived in Phoenix in 1979, my first exposure to Arizona Opera was a dreadful production of the same masterpiece in a shoddy looking and very tired staging that featured a fading opera diva.  I got the giggles early on and couldn’t stop snickering through the terrible performance.

That was not the case Friday at Symphony Hall when Arizona Opera mounted a stunning “Madama Butterfly” using L. A. Opera’s inspired new production staged here by Matthew Ozawa who made the love torn geisha look sympathetic while Pinkerton, the American naval officer and opportunistic conqueror who marries Butterfly, became a hateful avenger who takes advantage of a situation that causes Butterfly’s suicide.  The production featured a vocally stunning performance by Sandra Lopez in the central role.

It brought back memories of that first production I saw.  Not only was this Arizona Opera production stunning to look at thanks to the set and fabulous to hear because it was conducted brilliantly by Craig Kier and the cast sung artfully.  The performance’s second half which combined Act II and III reveals Butterfly’s misguided love of Pinkerton that was magnificently expressed in Lopez’s fine “Un bel di” aria that led to the dramatic final act when the geisha finally realizes the truth about Pinkerton’s contempt for the women who idolize him.  Daniel Montenegro’s Pinkerton wasn’t as gripping and vocally pure as Lopez’s Butterfly but Deborah Nansteel’s Suzuki was well sung and her acting performance immediately established her character’s loyalty as a trusted Butterfly supporter.

Levi Hernandez’s Sharpless proved a villainous marriage broker and Jason Ferrante delivered a fanciful Goro.  Thomas Rankin was adorable as the couple’s child, Trouble, even if the youngster was occasionally unable to sit still during critical musical sequences as he threw critical focus from the action.  Both Nansteel’s Suzuki and Lopez’s Butterfly were attentive to calming the hyper child.  My only other criticism has to do with an otherwise stunning backdrop depicting the Nagasaki, Japan harbor where abundant white clouds never moved and would have been more effectively presented as moving projections.

But these small flaws in an otherwise amazing “Madama Butterfly” prove Arizona Opera’s ability to make an operatic standard anything but ordinary.  “Madama Butterfly” ended its three Phoenix performances February 5.  To order tickets for future Arizona Opera productions, call the Arizona Opera box office at 602-266-7464 or order tickets online at www.azopera.org.

Grade: A