Colorful ‘Madama Butterfly’ a winner – for the most part
ASPEN Even without starry names in the cast, the combination of attractive young voices, Edward Berkeley’s creative and detailed production, and responsive playing from the Aspen Chamber Orchestra made Saturday’s Aspen Music Festival benefit performance of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” a winner.A raked playing area dominated by a large, red dot was centered on the tent’s broad stage. A few Japanese screens stood across the back. The orchestra was arrayed around this, stage left, with conductor David Zinman downstage between them. Characters entered and exited from stage right, often using the ramps and permanent stairs to suggest the approach to Butterfly’s hilltop house, with its implied view of Nagasaki’s harbor. The Japanese costumes shimmered in the light beautifully. Berkeley staged the complex action and introduction of myriad characters in Act I clearly and well, no easy task. In a master stroke, Butterfly’s suicide occurred, backlighted, behind a small folding screen. On a climactic chord, the screen crashed to the stage as her body fell forward.In Act I, Shirvis established herself as a soprano with a rich, clear sound. She used her voice and demeanor to create a flesh-and-blood character, a hallmark of Berkeley’s directing. Smith did so, too, with ringing high notes and a sweet middle range, even if he lost focus singing softly high. His early scenes with Sharpless, the American consul, sung by baritone Stephen Powell, established Pinkerton as a thoughtless cad and Sharpless as a reasonable but ineffective soul.Zinman kept the pulse going through Butterfly’s entrance music, delicately sung (without the optional high D-flat) by soprano Barbara Shirvis, and through most of the love duet, sung with great attention to shifting moods by Shirvis and tenor Roy Cornelius Smith. Suzuki, Butterfly’s maid, sung by deep-voiced mezzo-soprano Jennifer Hines, came into her own in Act II, playing well against Shirvis’ impetuous Butterfly. After a strong “Un bel di” aria from Shirvis, Zinman slowed the music perceptibly for the Flower Duet. You could feel the excitement fade, when it should have exploded, and the slow tempo couldn’t have helped Shirvis, who cracked on an exposed high note near the end.In Act III, virtually every major moment arrived with a grinding of brakes on the tempo, culminating in a deadeningly slow final orchestral outburst. So many things happened right in this performance, it’s too bad the momentum flagged.