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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Madame’s Butterfly

From the Vault Dept.: My interview, such as it was, with the legendary Natalia Sats is here. The relationship between her Moscow Musical Theatre for Children and NY’s Empire State Institute for the Performing Arts brought her company back two years later for the performance reviewed below.


IT'S STILL A PUZZLE, this choice of Puccini's “Madame Butterfly” as one of the Moscow Musical Theatre for Children’s offerings this month at the Egg.

Moscow Musical Theatre for Children
Thanks to a cultural exchange program (which took the Empire State Institute for the Performing Arts to Moscow with “Rag Dolly”), Natalia Sats’s venerable company returned this week with more productions, and the opera was another dazzling example of this company’s no-holds-barred theatricality.

But why “Butterfly”? It doesn’t paint a terribly nice portrait of America, as U.S. Navy Lieutenant Pinkerton trifles with the love of an uncommon Japanese woman, whose devotion to him brings about her own tragic end.

There’s really nothing Russian about the opera; in fact, it was amusing to see an Italian work about an American set in Japan and sung in Russian. So many differing cultures rarely nestle so closely.

So it must have been merely the fact that, like all great art, this opera is universal: it thrives on a musically- and theatrically-sound treatment, which anyone is invited to provide.

Saturday night Madame Sats introduced the opera in her melodious, carefully-chosen English: “Warmest greetings from Moscow,” she began. “The theater has a magic force to transfer us to any country in any time. Tonight we find ourselves in Japan a hundred years ago...”

She was born a year before the first production of this opera, and grew up when an unabashedly romantic style still enraptured theatergoers.

Under her direction, this production borrowed that style to capture a look for the opera that pretends to be nothing more than theatrical. The house that Pinkerton (Vitaly Ivan) is renting opens to become a small proscenium, as if it were a theater set in a Japanese park; when Butterfly’s angry relatives denounce her, it is into this house that she flees, as if to use the magic implicit in such a structure.

And it’s in that theater that Cio-Cio-San, nicknamed Madame Butterfly (Natalia Kostenko) awaits her faithless lover, again pinning her hopes on that magic. The end of the second act was a breathtaking spectacle that placed her with her servant, Suzuki (Lidya Kutilova), and young Pinkerton son (Nikita Karpov) looking out to the sea, framed in the stage-within-a-house, the backdrop, painted with a misty mountain, reflecting the changing light of the passing of time, as Puccini’s wistful music played and played.

It was an effect much bigger than life and more stylized and thus, in the context of the theater, completely effective. It’s rare to find a large audience sitting so quietly through what’s essentially no action at all.

The performers put the music first, with fine voices from all the principals. Svyatoslav Kalganov was delightfully impish in the character role of Goro, a marriage broker. As Sharpless, the U.S. Consul at Nagasaki, Viktor Bogachenko was suitably avuncular.

The orchestra, travelling with the company, was outstanding, under Israil Gusman’s effective baton, achieving a much larger sound than that of a pit-sized group.

What made the production most effective was the philosophy that informed the interpretation. “Madame Butterfly,” despite its tragic finale, is a comedy. It inhabits the same wry world as the works of Chekhov, which right away gives it a Russian flavor. Pinkerton is a buffoon; never mind his nationality – the character inhabits every culture.

Butterfly herself is the only tragic ingredient, and that is because she is unable to act and think with the detachment of those around her.

Sats’s secret, then, was to recognize those comic threads of the story and weave them into poignant counterpoint to the character of Cio-Cio-San. We succumb to tragedy much more openly when we’ve been led to laugh a little first of all.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 14 March 1988

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