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Opera San Jose Madama Butterfly

Madama Butterfly
Photo: Pat Kirk

Opera San Jose


Ostracized by her relations for converting to Christianity, forsaking her people’s ancient religion, and abandoned by the American “vagabond” who she married, Cio-Cio-san aka Butterfly, (played by Soprano Jennifer Forni) names her son Sorrow and in the final scene commits suicide. Puccini’s Madama Butterfly explores the young girl’s progression from the hesitant bride claiming to be the “happiest girl in Japan” while singing sadly, to the infuriatingly naive, loyal to a fault, broken hearted yet hopeful mother until she finally gives up. The bulk of the opera is a soliloquy conveying slow-motion roller coaster of Cio-Cio-san’s feelings. Forni sings with a versatile dynamic tone that is always lush and never screeching. She was a pleasure to listen to, singing with a genuine simplicity that was easily empathizable.
In the supporting role of Suzuki, Cio-Cio-san’s servant and only friend, Nicole Birkland provided a stark contrast to Forni’s delicate phrases, projecting a louder more fiercely dramatic energy into the music.
BF Pinkerton is one of opera’s vilest schmucks, referring to his Japanese wife as a toy-- a naval Lieutenant who doesn’t even have the balls to face his victim and tell her himself that it’s over. In many operas where the plots are so thickly twisted and the evil scheming is murderous, calculating, bordering (or beyond) contrived, the story of Madama Butterfly is blunt and all too common-- this gives the opera it’s readily believable power. Christopher Bengochea handled the role fittingly not yielding to the orchestral accompaniment-- doing what he wants musically.
In his last set as orchestra director of the Opera San Jose, the ensemble gave David Rohrbaugh a rousing send-off. The brash imperial music, with the Star Spangled Banner deftly threaded into the quasi-recitative elicited patriotic fervor even though here it serves as a leitmotif for the villain. This contrasted with plaintive Pentatonic chant-- European orientalism at its best. Someone should do a remake of this opera with real ethnic Japanese music though. Same goes for all the other “destination operas.”