Mar 20, 2019
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Courtesy of Anthony P. Radford

“Madama Butterfly,” a strong and elegant performance

I had never been to an opera before, let alone a performance that was in a different language.

Concerned thoughts swamped my mind as I struggled to find a good seat in the sold-out Fresno State Concert Hall on Friday, March 8. I was unsure what to expect, but after watching Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” I can confidently say bravo to Fresno State.

Knowing how big a production “Butterfly” is, I wondered how the Fresno State Symphony Orchestra and Fresno State Opera Theatre would pull it off. The hall is not a very big space, but stage director Ashley Trembley made it work, as it was a very strong show.

The opera theatre has been educating students with an interest in opera for nearly 30 years. Producer Anthony Radford and conductor Thomas Loewenheim decided to collaborate to present full operas with an orchestra about 10 years ago. “Madama Butterfly” marks their fifth production in the concert hall.

“Madama Butterfly” tells the story of the complicated marriage between an American naval officer, Pinkerton, played by guest artist Jonathan Yarrington, an opera professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, and a young Japanese geisha, Cio-Cio-San, known as Madame Butterfly, played by Fresno State opera professor Maria Okunev-Briggs.

After their marriage, Butterfly is abandoned by her husband when he returns to America. Butterfly awaits his return with her servant, Suzuki, played by Tiffanie Trujillo, and the son who Butterfly has with Pinkerton. Three years later, her husband returns to Japan with his new wife and requests that Butterfly give their child to him. Choosing to die with honor rather than live in shame, Butterfly obeys his wishes and then commits suicide.

The acting and singing in this production were very good.

Yarrington played a vocally imposing Pinkerton. Okunev-Briggs’ voice was strong, which was needed for this powerful role, and it made me sympathize with the events that Butterfly was experiencing. I connected most with her character when she sang about having to give away her son. The hurt and sadness in her voice allowed the audience to feel the pain that she was experiencing. It was beautiful to watch.

I would have preferred that she be played by a woman a little closer to the age of 15. Although Okunev-Briggs’ voice had a powerful, rich huskiness, it belied the age of the character.

I also would have liked to see a more expressive relationship between the two leads considering their singing was very full-voiced and passionate.

I was most impressed with Trujillo, a recent Fresno State graduate, as Suzuki. I applaud the costume and makeup designers, Trembley and Sylviah Vargas, for making her look the part so well and accurately, but I think her acting skills are what made her such an amazing character.

Her soprano voice was beautiful when she sang to Butterfly after Pinkerton had found a new wife and wanted to take Butterfly’s son back to America with them. This was my favorite scene in the production because the audience was able to experience the deep connection between this young wife and her servant.

The set could have been a little more elaborate. It consisted of a pair of folding, Japanese-style screens. This simplicity was probably due to how small the stage was.

One scene that I felt needed to be shortened was when Suzuki, Butterfly and her son were asleep, waiting for Pinkerton. This scene was far too drawn out and sort of irritated me, considering the fact that the opera was three hours long.

The audience was well aware that the three characters were supposed to be sleeping, and I think that this scene could have been cut down to be one or two minutes long.

Fresno State took the production very seriously, and this dedication paid off. Overall, “Madama Butterfly” was entertaining, elegant and professional in its performance.

Ariana Wafer won the Fresno State student opera review competition. She is a freshman pre-child and family science major.

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