Review: Dunleavy shines as Chautauqua’s ‘Butterfly’

Review by Anthony Bannon

Amanda Mainguy | Staff Photographer
Mary Dunleavy, as Cio-Cio-San, and Scott Quinn, as Lt. B.F. Pinkerton, center, come together onstage during Chautauqua Opera’s Madam Butterfly Saturday evening in the Amphitheater. 

Mary Dunleavy, who was the Butterfly Saturday evening, carried the full Amphitheater audience through a launch of anticipation and joy and then shivered down the other side into a gut-wrenching despair and suicide. Not many functions in life have such range, delivered within just a few minutes, but this virtuoso soprano was mother, maenad, lover, child and sage, and it wasn’t only with the well-made words she used, for this was performance — chilling performance.

Giacomo Puccini’s tragic opera, Madam Butterfly, is no pretty picture. It is chilling with the ugliness of the many forms of manifest destinies: national, social, religious, sexual, cultural all among them.

Fitting that, during the opera’s second act on Saturday, the skyrocket explosions of leftover nationalism on Chautauqua Lake provided a capricious warlike backdrop for high-art recitation of a selfish arrogance so enduringly and globally commonplace as to merit the attention of a variety of narratives  — from 19th-century vernacular to late 20th-century musical theater — known as “Miss Saigon.”

Ms. Dunleavy has played the main world stages and holds a claim of being one of the few women on the Metropolitan Opera stage to portray both the gentle Pamina and the nasty Queen of the Night in Mozart’s The Magic Flute. A more fitting encomium for her Butterfly purposes, though, is the Maria Callas Debut Artist of the Year award for her work with the Dallas Opera. Maria Callas is among the paradigm Cio-Cio-Sans (i.e., Madam Butterfly).

The whole of the Butterfly experience is ironically, achingly, beautiful in the strange way that the truly heart-stopping and breathtaking business of life can get so far and so irretrievably out of control that it can be felt beautiful. It really isn’t. Except in art. It is selfish and ignorant and arrogant in the way that cultures can be so terribly damaging.

Yes, the audience openly cried at the end of this artifice, and for good reason. And then stood for a five- minute ovation of gratitude for a wonderful performance by the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra members led by guest artist Arthur Fagen, and the assembly of guest, Apprentice and Studio artists who made it happen outdoors in the Amp. This was a one-night-only special, a part of a company-wide examination of the ways the East meets the West, and a real gift to the community.

Now back to Puccini.

He created a number of versions of Madam Butterfly, beginning at La Scala in 1904. The version Jay Lesenger, general/artistic director of Chautauqua Opera Company, selected was created by Puccini for performance three months later in Brescia. This version, Lesenger reasoned, retained the political vigor of the original while making some useful aesthetic changes. Lesinger was stage director for the performance.

But the Amphitheater didn’t cut him any breaks. It is a huge space with a stage small in relation to its vast arena, with singers who performed without amplification.

Thus the evening began with a good bit of overcrowded, blocky scene setting and getting-to-know-you business, so many people getting used to fitting into the space all at once. And it took a while for the artists and the orchestra to find a friendly balance, too. But once nubile geisha Cio-Cio-San married Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton on leave from the U.S. battleship Abraham Lincoln, the opera played in the grove.

Let it be said that theirs was not a marriage made in heaven, although Cio-Cio-San learned the Sign of the Cross and the American Way. Her family disowned her, and her new husband went back to sea right away. But young Butterfly, quickly with child, stayed the course, month after month. Three years later, Pinkerton returned with an American wife and a plan to pick up the child, drop off a few bucks and just call the romance and songs with Butterfly a fling in the Orient.

The play takes place in Nagasaki, and Pinkerton, as if telling the terrible future of that place, renamed his wife’s household staff Scarecrow 1 and 2 and 3, and so often misses the cultural grace notes that his bride tossed his way.  She knew that, in America, collectors trapped butterflies and pinned them inside of display boxes. And for her part, she didn’t get it when her soon-to-be husband came up behind her in response with a securing hug, declaring her “all mine.”

Still, for all their reciprocal clumsiness, Butterfly and Pinkerton weave beautiful — and scary — duets of love and danger — a danger the audience knows only too well after a century of experience. Scott Quinn, also in a Chautauqua debut, lacks the character of Dunleavy’s voice, but partners well with her, providing tenor strength and timbre when needed to sustain and balance, while giving generous berth for her more seasoned vocal coloration.

Into the second hour, Dunleavy, almost always on stage, was hitting stride, a fearful auger of death often in her breath, her voice and in her piquant duets, particularly with her dresser, Renee Tatum, a Chautauqua veteran — also well-known on the New York stage, who was a marvel of control, mezzo with soprano — seeming like two voices that have sung together before and knew just how to fit.

The soprano’s famous aria, “One Fine Day” (“Un Bel Di”), anticipates the return of her husband from sea, and was held in subtle balance with the orchestra, rather than giving the voice free flight, and the rendering earned the pleasure of recognition from the audience, and perhaps appreciation for the interpretation.

Lesenger’s direction often played with the conflicted circumstances Butterfly faced: cast aside by her family, without support, and forgotten by her husband. As Dunleavy sings this possibility, her extension of just that word — “Forgotten” — is drawn and amplified like a fire kindling and coming ablaze, only to set into an explosive final syllable, a blast of the voice, as if of a gun, another realization of the tragedy of dislocation and death just around the corner, both stalking for the past three years, now their final realization moments away.

Butterfly awaits the inevitable, the light draining from the stage as she undertakes a long night witness, the stage emptied of light and of any action save the sound of a long dirge like chorus from offstage, an orchestral lament as Butterfly stands in sentinel stillness, anticipating the joyless homecoming of her husband, returned with a new wife to collect his child and leave.

All that remains for Butterfly is to die with honor; no longer able to live with honor, her life’s expectations a lie.

Tough stuff. Well done. Full house.

Anthony Bannon is executive director of The Burchfield Penney Art Center and research professor at SUNY Buffalo State. He was an arts writer for The Buffalo News and other magazines and journals internationally.