I feared Madison Opera's presentation of Puccini's Madama Butterfly would prove two incompatible productions running simultaneously, one musical and one visual.
Musically, there was indeed much to enjoy. In the title role, Maria Kanyova was splendid. If not quite conveying the transformation from a nave girl into a tragic woman, she nevertheless showed great acting skill, matched by a ringing, slightly steely, but clear and handsome voice. Unfortunately, the Pinkerton was tenor Arnold Rawls, whose coarse shouting made an unsympathetic character really annoying.
Secondary characters were beautifully portrayed, like the rich-voiced mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson as the devoted servant Suzuki, and full-toned baritone Grant Youngblood as the honest American consul, Sharpless. Jason Ferrante showed genuine flair for comic detail as Goro, the marriage broker.
Still smaller roles also fared well, mostly taken by fine local singers. The young Italian conductor Leonardo Vordoni, if doing nothing special with the orchestral dimension, still kept things moving efficiently.
On the visual side, Leslie Swackhamer's straightforward stage direction was consistently effective. (But, while black-costumed Kabuki stagehands have become clichés for staging this opera, did they have to dance at the beginning of each act?)
Other things, however, were more problematic. Japanese artist Jun Kaneko, who has worked mainly in ceramics and sculpture, designed set and costumes. Not surprisingly, his décor looked like some art-gallery exhibit, rather than coherent theatrical visualization. Worst were his costumes: whimsical, semi-surreal things rarely related to any time, place or style. More might be said for his minimal set, a ramp curving down to a target-decorated floor focused on a circular platform. One must ask, does the lush scoring of Puccini really merit an austere and virtually bare stage?
To be sure, there were undeniably stunning moments, as in the entry of Butterfly's troupe of ladies. Periodic drop-screens for projections sometimes worked (a rising moon and twinkling stars; maybe Pinkerton's passing ship), sometimes did not (the falling flowers; the tedious color displays to cover the reconnecting of Acts II and III, instead of Puccini's sunrise).
Certainly Anne Scheer's lighting was artful. And, with visual minimalism actually enhancing the melodrama of Butterfly's death, I recognized ultimately a kind of cumulative power in the whole confection, for all I disliked. Technological and decorative experimentation has as many perils as rewards. Still, Madison Opera showed courage in undertaking such an extra-traditional production of a warhorse opera.