There is something in Kenneithia Mitchell's voice that goes straight to
the heart. Her singing is mellow, effortless, brilliantly phrased; she
disappears in the role, serves the music and drama, no ego showing or
heard in the voice. She is a true artist, not a star-wannabe.
The soprano's debut at West Bay Opera this weekend, in the title role
of "Madama Butterfly," was the precious jewel in the crown of a small
company that keeps coming up with big hits on an annual budget that
wouldn't cover half of a single production elsewhere.
On the postage-size stage of the Lucie Stern Theater, with an orchestra
of two dozen or less, Jose Luis Moscovich's Palo Alto company has given
us first-class productions of "The Flying Dutchman" (!), "Cav/Pag,"
"Macbeth," "Manon Lescaut," and many more; to my regret, I missed "Orfeo
ed Euridice" earlier this year.
Somehow this "Butterfly," a transparent opera almost too well known,
has topped them all with a comprehensively, consistently solid production
from conductor Sara Jobin, stage director David F. Ostwald, set designer
Peter Crompton, costume designer Callie Floor, a uniformly good cast,
an orchestra playing its collective heart out, and an unusually fine
Mathew Edwardsen is the Pinkerton, using a smallish voice to its best
advantage. Kindra Scharich, the Suzuki, is going the other way, keeping
a big voice down sufficiently, and giving a wonderfully committed dramatic
performance. David Cox's Sharpless is among the finest musical-dramatic
portrayals I have seen in the role. David Heilman's Goro and Carlos
Aguilar's Bonze fit right into a great ensemble.
As with Mitchell's performance (notwithstanding occasional slack diction,
a bit of acidity in the voice between middle and high notes), the entire
production had more than the sum of its parts, gifting the audience with
that undefinable atmosphere of something being done right, pulling the
listener into the glorious pathos of the work, bypassing distractions
from one's critical faculty. (One exception: the men's wigs; tsk, tsk.)
Jobin is responsible for the musical "rightness" of the performance.
Still at the beginning of her career - although being the first (and
so far only) woman conductor in the San Francisco Opera House - she has
engagements galore coming up, including an unannounced/unconfirmed/rumored
appearance at mentor Donald Runnicles' Deutsche Oper Berlin. Just as
Runnicles' "Butterfly" in San Francisco a few years back, Jobin's Puccini
is straightforward (that is, not gushing), but passionate and sweeping...
never out of control.
And, take note, unlike the SFO Orchestra, Jobin's small band consists
of heroic part-timers of the Freeway Philharmonic, so the comparison is
all the more impressive. Concertmaster Tina Anderson, cellists Janet
Witharm and Dahna Rudin, Peter Lemberg on oboe/English horn, clarinetists
Bruce Foster Macy have earned special mention.
Ostwald's work should be used in opera-director schools as a shining
example of serving an opera, instead of showing off how clever and
"contemporary" the director can be. West Bay's is a traditional, but
imaginative and compelling production, fluent and believable. Even
the final scene, with an unusually large number of characters mourning
Cio-Cio-San, seems "authentic." Thank goodness that none of Ostwald's
program notes (about the collective guilt of conquerors, from the Egyptians
to contemporary Sudan) were realized in the production itself; Bellasco
and Puccini don't need amplification in anti-imperialism.
Crompton's "traditional but relevant" set and Floor's opulent costumes
would do credit to a bigger, more affluent opera house. I am not
overemphasizing the business end of the story in view of Moscovich's own
entertaining and effective pre-curtain plea for support. He had (true
story) requested a $7 million grant from the American Recovery and
Reinvestment Act for the country's small opera companies, and he tells
the story repeating the rationale he used in the application:
"In lean times, people cut back on frivolous expenses. But opera is
anything but that. It isn't just entertainment. You come to West Bay
Opera to be moved, uplifted, healed. How much is that worth to you?"
Appealing for support is easy. WBO and this "Butterfly" *earn* the right
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