Review: IO's 'Madama Butterfly' 

click to enlarge Jee Hyun Lim and Garrett Sorenson starred in 'Madama Butterfly.' - DENIS RYAN KELLY, JR.
  • Jee Hyun Lim and Garrett Sorenson starred in 'Madama Butterfly.'
  • Denis Ryan Kelly, Jr.

3.5 stars
Indianapolis Opera
Clowes Memorial Hall
Sept. 23 and 25.

Korean soprano Jee Hyun Lim, a hit in the title role of Indianapolis Opera's 2004 production of Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly, returned last weekend to reprise her role with the same gusto she gave us then. And once again she personified this story's simple moral: Youthful naiveté can lead to personal tragedy.

Cio-Cio-San, a 15-year-old Japanese geisha, is married to U.S. Navy Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton in an arranged wedding near Nagasaki. She becomes Madame Butterfly. They are together only long enough to conceive a child; he then leaves with his ship to go elsewhere. Truly in love with him, she pines over his absence, assuming he'll return to her. After three years, the cad does, bringing an American "wife" with him and both wanting custody of the child. Butterfly accedes—and slashes her throat because she has lost everything.

Such is the long and the short of a very sad tale, one whose drama is in its details. And it was just those particulars, elaborated by librettists Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa from a story by Philadelphia lawyer John Luther Long, which inspired Puccini to set them to one of the most opulently endearing opera scores ever penned. Though Friday evening's Clowes Hall was not quite filled (a sign of our times), those attending were enraptured enough to confirm the point in IO's fifth Butterfly.

With Lim singing the title role—something she has done seemingly countless times since her 2004 IO debut—we once more had a true Asian Butterfly, excellent both as a singer and characterizer. Indeed Lim was as equally exciting an IO lead singer as Maureen O'Flynn in last spring's La Traviata. But Lim's role requires more singing than O'Flynn's: practically three straight hours non-stop—and with a rich, vibrant, yet well controlled delivery. And once again she sang her Act 2 "Un bel di" ("One Beautiful Day"), in which she fantasizes about Pinkerton's return—perhaps the most familiar aria in the world to non-opera lovers—about as well as anyone I can recall.

Making his IO debut, tenor Garrett Sorenson delivered as well projected a Pinkerton as Lim's Butterfly but with less vocal ease. He was outflanked by another IO newcomer, baritone Jeffrey Mattsey as Sharpless, Nagasaki's American consul, who added an opulent gravitas to his role. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Heltzel made her IO debut as Suzuki, Butterfly's servant. These three singers—Lim, Mattsey and Heltzel—vocally dominated the production.

Otherwise, Joseph Hu as Goro, the Japanese marriage broker; Darren K. Stokes as the Bonze, Butterfly's uncle who places an ominous curse on her when she chooses to marry outside her faith; and Davia Bandi singing the "other wife," Kate Pinkerton, had lesser roles with concomitantly lesser voices. Of these, Stokes' well honed delivery stood out. Whereas Davia's Kate was too soft to hear or evaluate in her meager role at the end.

IO conductor James Caraher continues to demonstrate that the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra provides as polished a pit ensemble as does the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra in other productions--especially given its challenging scoring in this opera. Stage director Bill Fabris handled his relatively small cast with full, professional aplomb. The single set of Butterfly's home from outside, complete with walkway and a "Japanese bridge," was the effective work of designer Carey Wong, who also designed IO's 2004-production set.

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