Opera Colorado opener 'Madama Butterfly' draws in audience
DENVER -- Over the years an assiduous opera-goer sees a lot of "Madama Butterfly" performances.

And rarely is there a bad one.

Even in a pedestrian performance, the sentimentality of the story and the overpowering emotion of the music save the day for Puccini.

Equally rare, however, is the "Butterfly" that grabs you and nails you to your seat, that makes your jaw drop as you grow increasingly involved in the story and surrender yourself to the illusion that this isn't opera, this is real life.

That's the kind of "Butterfly" that opened the 26th season of Opera Colorado on Saturday in the Ellie Caulkins Opera House.

To make this happen OC assembled a cast of principals new to Denver and engaged a director who sees things in this 1904 "hit" that escape others.

Britain's Ron Daniels, the director, comes to opera from the spoken theater and has been with this handsome production since it opened at the San Francisco Opera in 2002. The darkness that he senses in this score brings a depth to this staging that accounts for its unusual power.

At Butterfly's first mention of her father's disgrace and suicide, an ominous shadow falls upon the stage and spreads into the theater, packed to the last seat Saturday. And despite her constant declarations that husband Pinkerton will return, the young woman -- 15 when the curtain rises -- knows that he will not.

Yet she pursues her dream, developing in a mere three years into a tragic figure on the level of Medea or Alcestis.

The concept comes from Daniels, but it's Adina Nitescu who -- as Butterfly -- makes it work.

The Rumanian soprano, a major artist in the Puccini world, has been Cio-Cio San in Berlin and soon sings the role in Dresden and Moscow. And it's a coup that OC has brought her to Denver.

She has an immense velvety voice and she is Butterfly from the moment she appears on stage until her death.

Her portrayal of child-like innocence on her wedding night is unhackneyed, and she takes the audience with her into the noble sorrow with which her life ends.

To enhance the dramatic impact of Nitescu's work, Daniels has accompanied her with six koken from Japanese theater who -- shadows of darkness -- serve as stage hands and follow the story with breathless fascination.

With them as her allies the audience follows the all-night vigil as Butterfly waits for Pinkerton to come from his ship.

To find a Pinkerton on Nitescu's level one would have to resurrect Jussi Bjoerling or Franco Corelli, and one thus sympathizes with Michael Fabiano, who -- despite appearances at La Scala and in Dresden, is a pale partner to her.

He sings nicely, and his remorse at what he has done seems genuine, but he never burns with that intense flame that makes Nitescu's Butterfly incandescent.

On the other hand, Anthony Michaels-Moore is a singer of the highest order. Celebrated in Vienna and Munich, the baritone brought amazing human warmth to Sharpless, the American consul caught in the middle of this drama.

One is now so used to the perceptive presence of Stephen Lord as music director of most OC productions that one takes his excellence for granted -- which one should never do.

Here again he wielded a magic wand that accounted for the overall excellence of the Saturday performance.

This is opera of exceptional excellence.
Wes Blomster, Boulder Daily Camera
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