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Thread: Butterfly at Piedmont Opera: The Jill Gardner and James Allbritten Show - Review

          
   
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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Butterfly at Piedmont Opera: The Jill Gardner and James Allbritten Show - Review

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    Madama Butterfly, opera sung in Italian, premiered on February 17, 1904 at La Scala in Milan, Italy

    Music by Giacomo Puccini

    Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on the short story of the same name by John Lutter Long (1898), which in its turn draw material from stories told by the author's sister Jennie Correll and from the novel Madame Chrisantème (1887) by Pierre Loti, then the sort story was adapted for a stage play by David Belasco Madama Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan (1900), attended by Puccini.

    Piedmont Opera, October 31, November 2, and November 4, 2014 [for tickets, click (here)] [for Opera Lively's full announcement of the show with info on parallel events, click (here)]

    Performed in Italian with English supertitles at the Stevens Center of the UNC School of the Arts in downtown Winston-Salem, NC, USA

    Winston-Salem Symphony conducted by James Allbritten

    Piedmont Opera Chorus

    Production Team

    Stage Director - Cynthia Stokes
    Scenic Designer - David P. Gorden
    Costume Designer - Evan Ayotte
    Lighting Designer - Norman Coates
    Wig and Make-up Designer - Martha Ruskai

    Cast

    Principal Roles

    Madama Butterfly (Cio-Cio San) - Jill Gardner
    B. F. Pinkerton - Isaac Hurtado
    Sharpless - Robert Overman
    Suzuki - Stephanie Foley Davis

    Main Comprimario Roles

    Goro - Brian Harris
    Bonze and Prince Yamadori - David Weigel
    Kate Pinkerton - Kristin Schwecke

    Other Comprimario Roles

    Alden Pridgen, Kathie Eppert, Betty Jones, Thao Nguyen, Matthew Arnold,Hal Garrison, and the child Gabe Deibler in the role of Sorrow

    Dancers

    Elizabeth Fowle
    Simon Hernandez

    This review is of the opening night on October 31, 2014

    Opera Lively has interviewed all four principal singers about their roles in this production and a few other career and artistic facts. These answers are extremely interesting and insightful and not to be missed. Click [here] to read the interviews.

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    Review

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    Piedmont Opera's Madama Butterfly, curtain calls, photo credit Opera Lively Press

    Readers familiar with my Piedmont Opera reviews understand that I am particularly fond of this regional company that consistently puts together world-class shows in spite of its modest size and budget. A remarkable characteristic of this amazing company in its 37th season is consistency. I have never been to a Piedmont Opera show that was any less than "very good," and I've been to many that qualify as "spectacular" (the absolutely stunning Flying Dutchman of next season comes to memory). So when my wife, knowing that I would be attending the performance in the capacity of reviewer for Opera Lively, asked if she should come along, expressing doubts if she should see yet another Butterfly, I answered: "You know, it's Piedmont Opera. Rest assured, it *will* be good!"

    Well, let's say that this winning streak wasn't broken tonight, and yes, this one also qualifies as "spectacular." Actually, it would rather qualify as this rare and elusive status, "almost flawless."

    Let's start by first addressing the very best parts. I called this review The Jill Gardner and James Allbritten Show.

    While all eyes were on Jill and so often operagoers skip paying attention to the conductor, one of the greatest assets of tonight's show was Mr. Allbritten.

    Often people think of Italian operas as a noisy affair. Some of the works coming from the land of my ancestors are bombastic and loud. Well, guess what, Butterfly isn't. It actually is quite delicate and gentle. The emphasis is on piano, not on forte. It isn't by coincidence that some moments have simple plucked notes on the strings, and in others there is almost silence from the pit. The scene when Sharpless reads Pinkerton's letter... the scene when Cio-Cio San spends a blank night waiting for Pinkerton's return... these are all filled with beautifully low dynamics in the orchestra. Unfortunately not all conductors understand that while this opera requires some big lungs (like Jill Gardner's), it certainly doesn't ask for a loud orchestra. Jamie Allbritten does understand it, and his conducting, if we need to define it by one word, is elegant. The Winston-Salem Symphony, a very excellent regional orchestra, obeyed Mr. Allbritten's lead by playing almost like a chamber orchestra. Transitions were smooth, players felt supported, space was given to the singing, tempi were spot-on - in summary, this was quite the show our talented maestro delivered.

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    Madama Butterfly, maestro Allbritten's viewpoint looking at Jill Gardner, photo credit Piedmont Opera

    Now, regarding the title role... wow. I've always liked Jill Gardner's voice, intelligence (see for example her phenomenal interview on Il Trittico that is in our Volume 2 of the Opera Lively Interview Series on paperback), and committed preparation (she always reads the sources, and this time went all the way to taking lessons from a real geisha to learn the body language and movements) but tonight even I was surprised. Jill had a simply phenomenal night. There is no way to sing and act the role of Cio-Cio San any better than Jill Gardner did. She was able to accurately portray with voice and body movements both the juvenile enthusiasm of the young geisha, and the bitter sorrow of the betrayed wife, as well as the heartbroken mother. And the singing! Perfect pitch control, precise notes never missing one, beautiful phrasing, powerful projection when needed together with the most delicate low volume lines (knowing how powerful this true spinto soprano's voice is, listening to her holding it all back and lowering the volume is quite striking), secure vibrato, crystalline and pure high notes, she had it all. Also, she entered the stage already in all speed with no warm-up problems, and kept the extremely high standard of singing the entire evening with no sign of vocal fatigue whatsoever (and this is a long sing with Cio-Cio San on stage almost all the time).

    The end of her love duet in first act, "Vogliatemi bene," brought me literally to tears, something I wasn't expecting to happen in an opera I've seen so many times. Her "Un bel dì" drew the most prolonged and delirious applause I've heard in recent memory. The public just wouldn't stop applauding. This is one of those occasions when an Encore would have been appropriate. Too bad she just waited and waited for the public to stop applauding, and then when we finally quieted down, the opera just went on. I'd have loved to hear it again!

    My wife who had been skeptical of attending the show (not for the company which she knows is good, but just because there's been too many Butterflies in our "career" as opera lovers), was thoroughly convinced by intermission, and said to me: "Jill is singing better than Anna Netrebko!" Yep. It was this good. Simply put, it was the best Cio-Cio San I've ever seen live on stage.

    It is hard to keep up on stage with a force of nature like Jill. Her Pinkerton had a tough night trying to match her, and was a bit smothered by Jill's uncanny projection, in one rare element of this show that wasn't ideal - this being live theater, nothing is perfect, so indeed there was a small shortcoming there, with Mr. Isaac Hurtado being a bit underpowered as compared to Jill. He did improve significantly as he warmed up, was much better in the second half of the first act, and his small participation in the final act was actually quite good. Whatever initial warm-up difficulty he had was compensated by excellent acting. Mr. Hurtado appeared to be quite the scoundrel on stage (the public even booed him at the end, which I interpret by assuming that they were booing the despicable character, not the singer - his performance although less shiny than Ms. Gardner's, was very far from deserving any boos), and once we met him at the after-party, it was striking to see how different he looked and behaved in his real persona - he seems to be a rather reserved man (or at least I had this impression), with no hint of Pinkerton's exuberant and cocky demeanor he imprinted on his character in the first act - which proves how talented an actor he is.

    Mr. Overman as Sharpless was another incredibly good singer and actor. This very experienced artist is rarely singing professionally these days, as he explained to me, pointing to his daughters who came with him to the after-party: "I've decided that I wasn't going to miss any time at home while my daughters are growing up - I chose my family over my singing." After a very significant career in Europe with an impressive resumé, Mr. Overman is far too good and in far too formidable vocal shape to have almost completely abandoned the operatic stage (he is now a full-time voice professor at High Point University). We are happy for his daughters who have Dad's presence and guidance, but we regret not listening to him more often, because his Sharpless was of the same order of magnitude of greatness as Jill's Cio-Cio San. Having an extremely gifted singer like Jill on stage is already a privilege; having two when we add Bob Overman is twice as good!

    Stephanie Foley Davis was an excellent Suzuki. She is a graduate of the A. J. Fletcher program (headquartered in Winston-Salem so she is a local girl) and all her friends who came to support her were in for a treat. Stephanie's voice is witness to the good training that the Fletcher delivers to the students, because her technique is exquisite. Her diction is perfect, she has good stage presence, and she was definitely not underpowered even when sharing the stage with Jill. A great surprise!

    The chorus and the comprimario roles were phenomenally well staffed, which is a rather permanent feature of Piedmont Opera. The company can draw from a large pool of talented young regional singers given that it partners closely with the A. J. Fletcher Opera Institute. There is an endless supply of good singers in Winston-Salem, and this is quite visible in Piedmont Opera's productions.

    Cases in point, David Weigel and Kristin Schwecke, both graduates of the Fletcher, were very good tonight. It is a pity to see the excellent Kristin Schwecke in a small part because I know how much more she can do - I've heard her in leading roles in The Crucible, La Rondine, and Merry Wives of Windsor - but hey, someone has to sing the small part of Kate Pinkerton, and why not staff it with a first-rate singer? That's the kind of luxury that Piedmont Opera can have, unlike most other companies. The tall and good-looking Mr. Weigel doubled-up as a terrifying Bonze and a seductive and unctuous Yamadori, and oh boy, did he do it well! This is a young singer to be watched, and so is Ms. Schwecke.

    Not local but just as good was Brian Harris as a funny and well-sung Goro. He hails from Colorado and trained at the Manhattan School of Music, where he certainly picked up good acting.

    A current Fletcher student manned well the small part of the Imperial Commissioner - Matthew Arnold. Let's not forget that the child in the silent role of Sorrow was very cute! The chorus was flawless throughout the evening - another good way to gauge a good opera company is to listen attentively to their chorus, and Piedmont Opera's is good.

    So, the cast was truly formidable. Here they are (most of them) at the after-party, deservedly happy, together with the maestro and the stage director:

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    Photo Credit Opera Lively; Weigel, Hurtado, Harris, Stokes, Allbritten, Gardner, Davis, and Schwecke

    We've established that the musical aspects were top-notch with superior singing, conducting, and playing. What about the other elements? They were all rather like a well-oiled Swiss watch; pardon the cliché, but it is hard to avoid it when things click so nicely. Starting with stage direction: Cynthia Stokes, whose good work I knew already from Piedmont Opera's magnificent The Crucible two seasons ago, was quite successful in this production. She mixed tasteful traditionalism with a touch of daring modernism, including two dancers dressed as ninjas who performed several interesting choreographic movements functioning as illustrators/commentators of the story as it unfolds, or as shadows of the characters. Some of the uses they had for long veils were incredibly beautiful - a brilliant touch was the repetition, as if a memory, of the movements between the two lovers in act one when Pinkerton drags Cio-Cio San closer by pulling her in from the other end of this long veil. When the despondent abandoned wife is dreaming of her lost husband, the movement is repeated, this time with a ninja at the other end of the veil. This scene was goose-bumping and oh-so-beautiful! One can also tell how good the stage director is from two other aspects: acting, and blocking. Both were superb tonight. She clearly coached well her troupe since acting was very good across the board, and blocking was smooth and harmonious, both when the stage was crowded (without looking so) and when it wasn't.

    Costumes were simply gorgeous. Readers can see them in our curtain call picture and also here:

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    Madama Butterfly, photo credit Piedmont Opera; Jill Gardner in center

    Lighting had all the good hues. Sets were very realistic, tasteful, and beautiful, obviously made with high level of professionalism. Choreography as mentioned added a lot to the show. Wigs and Make-Up were also very professionally done.

    It was good to know from the pre-curtain announcements that the company is in good financial shape, turning the corner from the economic crisis, with strong donor base, and the house was quite full in spite of the show having coincided with the Halloween parade.

    Well, rating this show will be a no-brainer.

    Great conducting, check.
    Great orchestra, check.
    Great singers, check.
    Good chorus, check.
    Good stage directing, check.
    Professionally done lighting, sets, costumes, wigs, make-up, check.
    Nice choreography, check.
    Smooth blocking, check.

    Oh, and by the way, informative playbill, good hospitality, and general efficiency of the company with a comfortable theater with good acoustics and easy in-out movements of the public, check.

    OK, so, what's not to like? Nothing. It was all good. So, the rating is A++, our highest. Easy, no? Well, no. It's not easy at all to put on stage a rather almost perfect operatic performance like this one, in a way that an old but tired favorite seems fresh and new and causes goosebumps, tears, and wild standing ovation. Only a handful of companies can do it, and Piedmont Opera, after setting the bar stratospherically high with a Flying Dutchman for the ages last season, gave proof once more that they belong to that elite. Bravo!

    My friends, if you preferred Halloween frolics to tonight's show and you haven't seen it, don't miss the two other performances on November 2 and 4! Given the consistently high production and musical values at Piedmont Opera, I look forward to The Magic Flute on March 13, 2015. Driving home, we closed the circle by making the same comment... "Oh well, another Magic Flute? We've seen it many times... but hey, it will be done by Piedmont Opera: yes, we'll come. It will be great."

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    Last edited by Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva); November 2nd, 2014 at 05:17 PM.
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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    What an amazing over achieving opera Company. Those individual reviews and even the costumes are way beyond a typical local company. That Gardner review was most interesting to read about her devotion to the role.

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    Opera Lively Site Owner / Administrator / Chief Editor Top Contributor Member Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Gigli13 View Post
    What an amazing over achieving opera Company. Those individual reviews and even the costumes are way beyond a typical local company. That Gardner review was most interesting to read about her devotion to the role.
    Yep, indeed; Piedmont Opera is over-achieving. You wouldn't believe the Flying Dutchman they put together last season; I thought it was superior to the celebrated Glimmerglass staging by Francesca Zambello (which was already very good).
    "J'ai dit qu'il ne suffisait pas d'entendre la musique, mais qu'il fallait encore la voir" (Stravinsky)

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