The Santa Barbara Grand Opera's production of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" is a feast for the eyes, ears, and soul. The period costumes and beautiful set transport us back almost to the Japan of Hiroshige and Hokusai at the turn of the century. The single set has wood and paper soji screens for the entire back wall, a big winding staircase on the right, where all the characters enter and exit, and Butterfly's little house with sliding screens. There are garlands of flowers lining the staircase, and hanging wisteria around the top of the house. Greg Fedderly is the swaggering Pinkerton. He has a permanent leering grin on his face as he prepares for his marriage. He doesn't really seem to intend misfortune, he simply doesn't understand how Butterfly can take this marriage seriously. It's all fun and games to him. He's infatuated with her, realizes it's that, and assumes it's only that to her. Sharpless tells him that when he heard her voice, it was the voice of true love. A look passes over his face, of total incomprehension, like that's absurd, this is just a passionate, youthful fling. Guiping Deng is a radiant Butterfly. She's in love, and it's the real thing with her. This Butterfly is vulnerable in every way. When she's happy, it's because Pinkerton is happy. She gives herself totally to him, even making his religion hers.
Probably the only really happy time in this opera is the wedding scene. Butterfly's friends and family gather in her house as High Commissioner Nathan Rundlett performs the ceremony. She shows Pinkerton her few possessions, which are family heirlooms. Everyone gasps as he playfully tosses a small statue of a Shinto God in the air, which contains the souls of her ancestors. Even for B.F. Pinkerton, this one is astounding in his flippancy. Butterfly explains the life of the geisha, and the honor associated with it. Then comes her Uncle the Bonze, who sweeps through like an ill wind. Frederic Griesinger is a commanding presence as he storms down the stairs bellowing at Butterfly for praying at the monastery and renouncing her religion. The entire scene turns to chaos, as all renounce her almost as a leper. In his one selfless moment, Pinkerton orders them out and takes Butterfly in his arms in a true gesture of love. They sing their beautiful duet as the act ends.
The Second Act of this opera is nothing but stark tragedy. The serious Butterfly stands on the staircase gazing into the distance. She's proud, and tries to put on a brave face, but there's always that vulnerability that seeps through. When Maria Ewing does this role, there's an inner strength that gives way to resignation to fate. There's none of that here. Guiping Deng tries to be strong, but is delicately fragile. When Sharpless appears with the letter, she's certain Pinkerton's coming back, but there's always doubt. When she spies the ship, and she and Suzuki scatter the flowers, it's almost a manic ecstasy, like it can't be real, but we'll celebrate anyway. Of course, it's not real and everything crashes in on her at the end. When Pinkerton returns, he's contrite, but it's himself that he feels bad for. He caused all of this torment and he will suffer for it, but it's his pain he hurts for. Greg Fedderly is a simply outstanding Pinkerton, best I've seen. This is a role that usually falls short for me, but he looks the part, is a tremendous actor, and sings with strength and character.
This is a strong cast from top to bottom. I loved Shieh-Yih-Lim as Goro. He's all over the place. He's slick, but there's also a naivete about him. He tries to give people what they want, but there's also a good part to him, like when he tries to arrange for Butterfly's marriage to Yamadori. He's certainly not appreciated, and is batted around like a cat toy. Teresa Brown's Suzuki is faithful and true. She genuinely cares for Butterfly, and will do anything for her. She realizes the futility of the situation, but sticks by her totally. In one excellent touch, she and Deborah Marks Bertling's Kate Pinkerton are in the garden discussing the fate of the child. Butterfly and the boy are the focus, but the two women are off to the side talking. They exchange quiet nods and are definitely communicating, while the action is elsewhere. A lot of little details like this really make this production by Arthur Allan Seidelman stand out. Valery Ryvkin led the orchestra in The Santa Barbara Grand Opera's gorgeous and tragic production of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" at the Lobero Theater through May.