Soprano’s unhinged intensity proves overwhelming in Santa Fe Opera’s “Butterfly”

August 15, 2010

Kelly Kaduce as Cio-Cio San and Brandon Jovanovich as Pinkerton in Santa Fe Opera's "Madama Butterfly." Photo: Ken Howard.

Few subjects can provoke more rancorous debate among opera mavens than the primacy of singing in the art form. Some maintain that it is the most crucial, essential ingredient, to which all other elements take a distant back seat. Others see opera as a collaborative medium in which the voice is just one of many factors, to be considered equally with acting, musical direction, scenic design and production values.

That debate took center stage Saturday night when Santa Fe Opera presented Madama Butterfly, the company’s first production in 12 years of Puccini’s classic tragedy of the ill-fated geisha, Cio-Cio San.

As one would expect of the celebrated Santa Fe company, the production had the usual distinction, with a strong cast, exemplary musical values and a traditional production with several clever touches.

But, as always, every Butterfly stands or falls on the strength of its female lead, and never was that more the case than with Kelly Kaduce in the current production.

The gifted soprano is one of the great singing actresses of our time. I’ve experienced her daunting versatility and ability to disappear completely into a variety of roles from Gretel and Mimi to the title role in David Carlson’s Anna Karenina.

Kaduce’s provocative performance of Cio-Cio San in Santa Fe’s current production is so controversial and revisionist that Saturday night it seemed at times revelatory, other times miles over the top, and frequently, simply exhausting.

The petite American soprano is physically well suited to the role of the innocent Japanese teen bride who is married, then heartlessly abandoned by the caddish American naval office Pinkerton, an act that leads to her destruction. For much of Act 1, Kaduce brought extraordinary insight to this thrice-familiar role with several individual touches, such as her jarringly violent reaction to the thought that Americans use pins on butterflies.

Yet with Act 2, one felt Kaduce’s performance slipping further away from the demure Butterfly into a more worldly contemporary zone. Part of that was clearly the intent of the production with the “American wife” wearing Western clothes. But too often her movements, responses and, especially, her hyperreactive approach to every line of dialogue made it seem more like Kaduce’s unhinged Butterfly was channeling Wozzeck. When the tragic denouement arrives, Kaduce’s violent explosion of rage came as no surprise and you just knew she was going to pick up and throw that chair right before she did so.

There’s nothing wrong with a new approach to a character, but Kaduce’s uninhibited excesses should have been reined in by director Lee Blakeley. As with Natalie Dessay’s floozy Violetta in Santa Fe Opera’s Traviata last season, you were constantly aware of watching an individual acting performance rather than an opera role as a part of a greater ensemble.

Kaduce’s vocalism was less controversial, the soprano singing with technical sheen and consistently illuminating the text. Her Un bel di was a small masterpiece of storytelling through music.

Yet while unfailingly sensitive, the inescapable fact is that Kaduce’s voice is too light for this role.  Yes, she can sing all the notes and be vocally effective in smaller venues. But in Santa Fe’s mountaintop arena, it was clear that she doesn’t have the vocal heft for the big moments, all of which fell short with abruptly curtailed climactic top notes in the love duet and her Act 2 aria.

Ultimately, even with Kaduce’s acting bona fides and daunting intensity, instead of a tragic ennobled figure, her Butterfly comes off like a deranged basket case, an unstable, neurotic woman who was likely going to have major problems even if Pinkerton had stayed with her.

With Kaduce’s showy star turn, it’s a testament to Brandon Jovanovich that he still managed to make a strong impact as Pinkerton despite being offstage for more than half of the opera. Jovanovich’s imposing tenor lacks Italianate quality and ping, yet he sang robustly and looked and acted like the swaggering villain. Unlike most, he also managed to make Pinkerton’s belated remorse over his actions seem genuine and sang an especially fine Addio, fiorito asil.

Finding a Suzuki shorter than Kaduce must have been difficult, but the tiny Elizabeth DeShong made an impact far greater than her physical stature, acting credibly and touchingly, and showing a surprisingly ample mezzo-soprano voice.

James Westman occasionally overdid the emotive reactions but made a sympathetic Sharpless. The wonderful Keith Jameson was an unctuous and quietly resentful Goro, Matthew Hanscom a fine Yamadori, Harold Wilson, a physically intimidating Bonze. The ensemble sang well but proved almost inaudible in the Humming Chorus. And I know we’re supposed to be living in a post-racial age, but isn’t having an African-American singer (Brandy Lynn Hawkins) as Butterfly’s mother carrying colorblind casting a bit far?

Jean-Marc Puissant’s revolving unit set was simple and atmospheric, artfully assembled by workmen during the action of Act 1, and showing dilapidated disrepair in Act 2. Conductor Antony Walker set off at a dizzying pace in the opening bars yet proved an assured hand in the pit, though he skirted over many of the small beauties of the score in haste. This was not a night for subtlety.

Santa Fe Opera’s Madama Butterfly has two more performances August 20 and 26.

3 Responses to “Soprano’s unhinged intensity proves overwhelming in Santa Fe Opera’s “Butterfly””

  1. Posted Aug 16, 2010 at 7:28 pm by thomas o'brien

    I thought sat performance to be very uneven from singing to stage direction( why hug a telephone pole?). Butterfly could hardly sustain any soft or lyrical vocal lines. how long can she sing at full throttle? Pinkerton’s sound was often muddled –otherwise he was going through the notes–his Addio was not memorable. Tell me why he was booed? nuff said!!!

  2. Posted Aug 28, 2010 at 10:58 am by JimSantaFe

    Lawrence: You amaze me with your description of Kaduce’s singing; I thought her on the edge of a precipice vocally at
    all times. She sang rather consistently out of tune, esp. in
    the mid-voice, which is particularly troublesome for all it
    implies, and on the evening I heard her,(Aug 20), she was
    unable to reach several of the top notes of the death scene – it
    sounded like sheer vocal exhaustion, no surprise considering
    the big sound she constantly pushed for. This career, vocally
    speaking, is clearly headed in the wrong direction. Where
    are responsible teachers and managers these days?

  3. Posted Aug 28, 2010 at 11:00 am by JimSantaFe

    On Jovanivich: He was not booed — Pinkerton was, that
    was very clear, he handled it well in the bows and the
    audience knew he understood; this tenor is in trouble with
    his top range — it’s very hollow about A-natural, not well
    positioned — so what does he do, reports next season to
    San Francisco to sing Wagner. So long, Brandon!!!!
    My comments above all apply.