Puccini’s Madama Butterfly delights Coronado audience

There was a new excitement in the air, as the audience began to gather a full hour in advance at Rockford’s Coronado Theatre Friday, Sept. 20, to see Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, the first time that the majestic Coronado had hosted traditional grand opera. The word “grand” hardly covers the event.

People trooped all the way down the aisles to see how the orchestra would fit in the enlarged space under the stage, to see how Steven Larsen would be placed so that he could conduct both the orchestra and the action on-stage—and did they see that TV cameras made it possible for the singers backstage to follow his cues on special monitors? And, of course, this gave added

opportunity to show off their own opera attire, several stages more elegant than what is seen at the average concert.

Once in their seats, the audience could begin to take in the stage setting, stark translucent sliding screens, which projected a serenity that would be a sharp contrast with the melodramatics that would transpire. The set came from the Palm Beach Opera Company in Florida, set design being such a major factor that the expenses are often brought into reach by sharing sets with other houses on a rental basis. The opera production itself was assembled in Peoria, of all places, and the title role brought us the memorable Oksana Krovytska, originally from Ukraine but now based in New York City to enjoy a worldwide career and recognition.

When she first appeared, she resembled a cocoon, as the chorus of friends and rela-

tions removed the layers of silk that bound her, releasing the innocent, trusting 15-year-old to her destiny. As the opera progressed, from ingénue to bride to young matron to final sacrifice, her voice and her dramatics also progressed, so that her domination of the scene is total by the final act. As she gives us the drama and the music in a rich and

practiced blend, it is easy to understand how Butterfly is now almost considered her signature role. By her wide gestures, she drew segments of the opera together into a whole; spreading her arms like wings when singing

of the butterflies that are impaled on pins for museum displays, the gestures recur in the final scene when she is about to impale herself with her father’s sword, in the ritual suicide.

Time and again, she had the control, the range, and the delicacy to delight us as her rich, full soprano voice soared to the ethereal high notes, yet in the lower registers she still conveyed the youthful coquette, the loyal wife, and the devoted mother, while demonstrating the spunk to ridicule the pretentious suitor Yamadori and to throw the comic Goro to the ground (right after Suzuki has thrown him down the stairs!).

Goro, played by Brent Colby (identified as Armenian-American), grew into a much more notable character than one might expect. Recognizable from the first by his incongruous little black derby hat, he manages to be all over the stage, and, appropriate to the role, always in the way, seemingly unaware of being obtrusive.

Lt. Pinkerton is a particularly challenging role (one source describes him as the grandson of the Duke in Verdi’s Rigoletto, but lacking the Duke’s charm). He is such a cowardly and thoughtless young man, so sure of his own life of privilege, and so egotistical that he is unable to receive any warnings of the damage he may be doing—and at the end, he seems unaware of how his “real American wife” is clearly appalled at learning the true character and history of her husband of one year. Tenor Joseph Levitt did a masterful job in conveying this rather questionable character, while still being convincing in his devastation at realizing that he has caused Butterfly’s death.

Joshua Benaim, as Sharpless, the American Consul who tries to warn Pinkerton, and Jennifer Tiller, as Suzuki, Butterfly’s supportive personal servant, both brought grace and musicianship, along with fine voices, to roles that must be played low-key, always overshadowed by the melodramatics seething around them.

There was such a mass of sensations, with the sights, the sounds, the stage action, and the interrelated musical themes tying the story together, that one might take for granted the artistry that came from beneath the stage, but every now and then the orchestra had a chance to star, to remind us of how this all came to be.

The Peoria Opera Company has been in operation for some 20 years, but every year opera production becomes more of a challenge for all of its special demands, and so the Peoria group decided to see if a new mission might result from changing the name to Opera Illinois. This will open up the vision of carrying their work beyond the city limits, to reach a wider audience while also broadening their financial base.

And here was Steven Larsen, with a background in opera, who had always wanted to bring opera to Rockford, but was blocked by the lack of suitable housing. Then Rockford’s own leading light, Mary Ann Smith, spearheaded the campaign to restore the Coronado, not just preserving the historical theater, but also revamping the backstage facilities, making it more attractive to traveling attractions. And it was sheer coincidence but irresistible temptation, that Opera Illinois this year had scheduled Madama Butterfly, longtime a favorite of Steven Larsen.

Larsen, who has long mastered the art of networking, through his many contacts at the different sites where he has conducted, taught, studied, or just made friends, spotted the Peoria venture as one that might be a mutually beneficial joint effort. A Rockford appearance would enlarge the potential audience, demonstrating the opera company’s professional standing and the possibilities of a traveling show, while giving Larsen’s own orchestra another star for its crown. The Illinois Arts Council, which allowed a generous grant of $35,000, along with sponsorship from National City Bank, made the Coronado evening a reality, and both deserve our thanks for their backing. Nowhere in the world does the elaborate art of grand opera survive on ticket sales alone, so here’s to the benefactors!

And, of course, as a sort of postscript, an eternal vote of thanks to the people who overcame elitist opposition some years back when the leading opera companies dared to introduce surtitles to opera production, so that we all could have a better idea of what was really happening on stage. The chuckles and gasps heard from the audience attested to the success of the idea. Let’s hope that there will be more opera in years to come, for the Coronado and the Rockford Symphony have both proven more than adequate to the task.

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