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Lady in the Dark

May 13, 2008

Maria Billingsley's Martinez Opera has done a great deal of community outreach and educational programming over the six years of its existence. That has given her company an identity and strong local support. Ultimately, though, an opera company is valued and judged by the quality of the work it puts on the stage. And with its latest production, Madama Butterfly, seen Saturday at the Alhambra Arts Center, the company has met, even exceeded, reasonable standards for a local, regional opera company.
Billingsley is a smart producer who puts her limited funds where they will do the most good. She hired quality singers in the lead roles. Occasionally that resulted in an almost absurdly two-tiered performance, as the comprimario (supporting) singers struggled to keep up. But Martinez Opera's Butterfly had many more hits than misses, even on this score.

As you would expect, Artistic Director Cesare Curzi’s production was traditional. More importantly, though, it was well-managed and transparent, never calling attention to itself. Some of the stage business and characterizations were too generalized, yet Curzi drew committed performances from most of his singers. There were thoughtful touches, too. Curzi at least knows that Japanese remove their footwear before entering a house. Few productions I've seen honor even this obvious detail. The costumes, many of them pulled from North Bay Opera's stock by Vivian Roubal, were gorgeous, and Curzi's set made good use of the space.

The star of the show, Olga Chernisheva as Cio-Cio-San, limned the character in fine detail, moving convincingly from the child-bride of Act 1 to the woman living by and then shattered by the strength of her illusions. I was moved, though there is clearly room for her to grow. It didn't hurt that she looked the part, as much as a non-Japanese woman can, and that she used appropriately controlled gestures and movements.

She has a strong voice, with well-rounded tone and fullness in all registers. Despite fighting a dry throat at times on Saturday, her vocalism was sure. She puts a lot of pressure on her voice to deliver the big sound in dramatic moments, though it has more flavor and expressiveness at lower volumes.
Trust in the Voice
If I were to give her advice (and I know I shouldn't), it would be to trust her voice and invest even more in the Italian words. Her phrasing is fine now, but to catch all the currents of feeling in this part a singer has to merge the longer line with the flexibility of dramatic recitative. In the final monologue alone, after a terrific opening, Chernisheva missed some opportunities, like "materno abbandono" (your abandoned mother) — the most important phrase in the aria. Any number of great singers, from Victoria de los Angeles to Patricia Racette, can serve as a model for expressing these two words.

Daniel Holmes, the Pinkerton, has an open tenor with plenty of power, a nice "ping" in the upper register, and a secure passaggio between chest and head voice. His voice doesn't have a mellow end to the spectrum, so it can be one-dimensional at times. That's hardly a black mark here, since Pinkerton's character is pretty one-dimensional anyway. He could have done more with "Addio fiorito asil" (Adieu, flowered refuge), the short aria of regret (and cowardice) in the third act, especially from the point of view of the words. But in general he gave a strong performance and sang the love duet thrillingly.

The old pro John Minagro came through with a great impersonation of Sharpless, the consul caught in the middle. Despite a little raggedness at the top end of his register, Minagro gave an object lesson in the power of words in the mouth of a knowledgeable singing actor. "Quindici anni!" (Fifteen years old!) — Minagro's Sharpless registers shock at the bride's age, simultaneously turning accusingly to face the feckless lieutenant at his side. A really great Madama Butterfly has to be made up of hundreds of such moments. Thanks partly to Minagro, this show had more than a few.

Jennifer Kosharsky, the Suzuki, is an excellent actress, with a dark-timbred, attractive, mezzo-soprano voice. She showed a natural way with Puccini's music, and gave strong declamatory emphasis to many of her lines. Michael Mendelsohn was vocally in his element as Goro. His best moments came, not in the extended comic sections of Act 1, but in Act 2, where he imparted genuine understanding to Goro's warped concern for Cio-Cio San's position.
Orchestra Up to the Challenge
The orchestra, under Alexander Katsman, made it through Puccini's deft but thick score mostly unscathed. The opening fugato passage was rhythmically stilted every time it occurred, and the brass and winds didn't click at the first Star-Spangled Banner reference. There were moments of thin sound caused by the reduced numbers, though all in all, the players should be commended.

Many of the technical problems of the Martinez company's 2006 La traviata have been corrected here. It helps that Puccini's opera requires only one set, so that no lengthy set changes needed to be made in the tiny auditorium.

There was only one avoidable mistake on Saturday night: Surely it would have been a simple matter to fade the lights to black at the end of Act 2, before turning up the houselights. As it was, the audience sat watching the stage as the humming choristers behind the scene began to socialize loudly, briefly cracking up Butterfly. The actors didn't know when or if they should get up and leave the stage, until the stage manager eventually came down to announce a short intermission. Even with a crossfade, the actors leave in semidarkness, and the momentary awkwardness is avoided.

This was a worthwhile production. It demonstrated that Martinez Opera's brand of community opera, like community musical theater, can thrive with a tiny budget and a dedicated creative team.

Michael Zwiebach is the senior editor/ content manager for SFCV. He assigns all articles and content, manages the writing staff and does editing. A member of SFCV from the beginning, Michael holds a Ph.D. in music history from the University of California, Berkeley.