PITTSFIELD — It's a brave opera company that will start up in the Berkshires, where two opera companies have folded in the last 12 years. The recently formed Berkshire Opera Festival has plunged right in with a well-sung "Madama Butterfly" that concludes a run of three performances at 7:30 p.m. Friday in the Colonial Theatre.
"Butterfly" is at once a smart and ambitious maiden effort. Puccini's opera is so beloved that audiences will come out for it, yet so dependent on a Cio-Cio-San that she can make or break a production.
Fortunately, the new troupe found its singer in Inna Los. Despite some over-the-top hysterics in the final act — this geisha grows up fast in the three years her rat of a husband, Pinkerton, is away — she commands the stage vocally and dramatically. By comparison, Jason Slayden makes Pinkerton seem more frat boy than conquering American naval officer, despite his agonies of remorse at the end.
Putting it another way, Berkshire Opera Festival is off to a promising start. If it can avoid the money trap that sank its predecessors — Berkshire Opera Company and Shaker Mountain Performing Arts Festival — it should find a ready home in the region. Plans for three productions in a season sound like a lot, but if the leaders can pull it off, bring 'em on.
The Colonial, despite its dry acoustics, proved hospitable to staged opera without amplification.
Designer Stephen Dobay's simple but effective set consists of moveable screens and a large, abstract disc like a rising sun (we're in the Land of the Rising Sun) against the back wall. Intimate scenes, such as the couple's wedding night, take place behind a screen, made translucent by John Froelich's consistently imaginative lighting. Butterfly's suicide sword hangs ominously on the face of the sun disc.
In director Jonathan Loy's otherwise inventive staging, an attempt to update the action seems to confuse it. The opera's first part, which takes place, as written, in Nagasaki in the early 1900s, is given traditional treatment with kimonos, mincing steps and frequent bowing — all stylized, with overtones of Kabuki.
The second part is transposed to postwar Nagasaki, without reference to the atomic bomb. Butterfly appears in ragged modern dress, barefoot in her poverty. (The tasteful costumes are by Charles Caine.) No longer a childlike, humble geisha, she becomes a raging, very modern wronged wife. Either staging, if consistent, would work. This double one asks you to believe that three years pass in 50 or 60.
As heard in Tuesday's performance, Butterfly's big aria, "Un bel di" ("One fine day") — always a showstopper — went for the larger passions rather than tenderness or longing. A shower of petals fell as she strewed flowers in the house for her husband's return.
The supporting cast sang and played the varied characters well, with Weston Hurt as a kindly, sympathetic Sharpless and Sarah Larsen as an attentive Suzuki. Lily Shepardson — a born actress at 5 — missed hardly a step and tore at your heart as Sorrow, Butterfly's innocent son. Other principals in the cast are Eduardo Valdes as Goro, John Demler as the Commissioner, Grant Hodgkins as the Registrar, John Cheek as the Bonze and Benjamin Taylor as Yamadori.
The locally recruited chorus sang with clarity and purpose. Also locally recruited, the small pick-up orchestra, under conductor Brian Garman, faithfully rendered the music's passions, but with patches of troubled intonation and some missed connections with the singers. Supertitles were helpful but difficult to read against a tinted backdrop.
Missteps are inevitable in opera, even more so in a regional company's debut. Berkshire Opera Festival is on its way. Let's see what comes next.
What: "Madama Butterfly" by Giacomo Puccini. Conducted by Brian Garman. Stage direction by Jonathon Loy. Sung in Italian with projected English translations
With: Inna Los, Jason Slayden, Weston Hurt, Sarah Larsen, Eduardo Valdes, John Cheek, Benjamin Taylor, Katherine Maysek, John Demler
Who: Berkshire Opera Festival
When: Friday evening at 7:30
Running time: 2 hours 45 minutes (including one intermission)
Where: The Colonial Theatre, 111 South St., Pittsfield
How: 413-997-4444; berkshireoperafestival.org; in person at Colonial Theatre box office on site