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[whitespace] Diva Rising: Soprano Jennifer Der Torossian as Cio Cio San elevated Bay Shore Lyric Opera's production of Puccini's 'Madama Butterfly' to dramatic heights.

On the Wing

Bay Shore's expressive staging of 'Madama Butterfly' takes flight with Der Torossian's dramatic transformation

By Scott MacClelland

CAPITOLA'S BAY SHORE LYRIC simultaneously raised the ante on itself and came through with a winner. While April 8's Madama Butterfly began with opening-night edginess, it only grew in confidence, expressiveness and intensity. By the final curtain, the sold-out house was treated to a full Puccini-esque emotional release.

Primary credit must go to stage director Licia Albanese, prima donna Jennifer Der Torossian, conductor Jun Nakabayashi and BSLO's deep pockets.

Albanese, the diva who sang the last performance of Butterfly at the Met before the attack on Pearl Harbor and the first in its revival there after the war ended, lent much more than stage direction to this new production. Her touch extended to the fine details of theatrical gestures and the long shape of character development so crucial to the success of this challenging work. Her principal protégé here was of course Der Torossian, who as actress constructed a remarkably compelling figure and as singer softened the hearts of even those who thought they had become inured to such romantic stereotypes.

In Act I, Der Torossian's high notes were strident and brassy, but as her character developed, her vocal technique warmed and relaxed. In Act II, she sang an endearing "Un bel di, vedremo." But what left the most indelible impression was watching Der Torossian evolve from smitten adolescence, to wife of abiding faith, to appalling humiliation and finally suicide, the only honor that remained.

The greatest singers develop a beautiful tone not as an end in itself but as a means of expression. They use their instruments like actors, putting emotion into the voice and striving to deliver a character worthy of the dramatic stage. Like Violetta in La Traviata, Cio Cio San makes or break this opera. Der Torossian's hope-against-hope Butterfly is impossible to resist.

As her housekeeper Suzuki, Liliane Cromer conveyed a lovely mezzo-soprano but a decidedly softer character. Cromer's sympathetic ministrations rang a little thin. More sympathetic in tone, demeanor and characterization was the Sharpless of baritone Michael Strelo-Smith, who never failed to reflect the unfolding tragedy, from predicting it to powerlessly watching it unfold. His conflicting emotions during the letter scene were as palpable as Der Torossian's pathetically determined expectations.

Lee Gregory made a perfectly credible Pinkerton, narcissistic, charming and gifted with a ringing tenor that set the first act definitively in motion. His love duet with Cio Cio San lifted the drama to a level that would carry to its final moments. (Of course, he is the main character of Act II, even while he does not appear. It's an old dramatic device found in Greek tragedies and, analogously, classical symphonies.)

Conductor Nakabayashi began the performance stiffly and rode the principals too inflexibly. As the orchestra settled in, he loosened up and became more sympathetic to the characters on stage. His skills truly shone in the last act, where phrasing, shape and pace are so important. Concertmaster Tina Anderson played her solos with security and authority. Sets and scenery deserve special praise, as do the many other performers and production staff.

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From the April 12-19, 2000 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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