Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Florida - West Coast

Madama Butterfly
St. Petersburg Opera Company
William S. Oser | Season Schedule

Samuel Hall and Zoya Gramagin
Photo by Jim Swallow/Packinghouse Gallery
To Complete its "Puccini Festival," St. Petersburg Opera Company brings us Madama Butterfly. The production has strengths, but it also has some flaws that make it a bit disappointing, on the level I might have seen in bygone years at some of the small opera companies I visited all over Europe.

Staging by Karl W. Hesser pays too little attention to authentic orientalism. In the important ensemble of Butterfly's entrance, chorus and supporting principals give no attention to how Japanese characters might move. Only the Bonze, in the ultimate moments of this scene, really makes the dramatic effect that draws an audience in. Acts two and three, played together heated up, the lack of incisive acting mattering much less.

Very much in the standard repertoire, the success of this opera rests on the shoulders of the soprano singing the title role. An ensemble entrance which goes frighteningly high and stays there, four arias and two duets make this role daunting. Zoya Gramagin has the right vocal stuff for this role. Born in Moscow and presumably trained there, she has that Slavic steel in her voice that helps to power through the role. The audience stopped the show cold after her "Un bel di vedremo." Equally impressive to me are her entrance scene and "Tu? Tu? Piccolo iddio!," her third act aria.

Unfortunately, none of the other major characters can earn the audience's interest and the tenor role of B.F. Pinkerton is so unsympathetic that I once heard an audience boo a solid performance of the role. Samuel Hall sings his act one aria well, but both he and Ms. Gramagin push through the love duet, lacking any semblance of finesse. Suzuki, Butterfly's maid, is a principal role, but one that the Metropolitan Opera casts with a first line comprimario, a singer who makes a career of supporting roles. Sahoko Sato-Timpone does the honors and, based on her hometown of Tokyo, might have brought the authenticity of movement that I desperately missed, but this is not the case, her acting rudimentary. Daniel Scofield is Sharpless, the American Consul, another thankless role. Goro, the marriage broker who opens the opera and has an appearance in act two as well, making this the largest featured role, is well sung by Stephen Steffens but has the same movement issue. The most dramatically telling acting comes from Izabella Johnson as Dolore (Sorrow), Butterfly and Pinkerton's child. She is probably 4 years old, maybe five, and therefore believable as a 2-½ year-old child, timid away from his mother.

The glory of this production is Maestro Mark Sforzini and his orchestra, as always. The opening fugue, the only one in all of Puccini, is sharply delivered, all three entries precise and in perfect relationship to each other. I have heard major opera orchestras muddy this passage. All through the opera, Puccini's newly advanced compositional skills shine through. Underneath a soprano's opera is a gorgeous orchestral palette serving the drama. Maestro and his forces are doing themselves super proud.

Jerid Fox brings a valuable new eye to scenic design for this venue and company. Stage right is the house of screens for Pinkerton and his bride, later Butterfly and family, and the gardens and footbridge for Butterfly to enter over, stage left. Costume design is by Glenn A. Breed of Wardrobe Witchery. Keith Arsenault does his usual fine job lighting the show.

Madama Butterfly is a mainstay of opera houses around the world. It is not easy to produce, especially with new cultural sensitivities. I wish that St. Petersburg Opera Company had had more rehearsal time to work on the acting, but musical matters alone are a big hill to scale, and the production is a fine introduction to this classic.

Madama Butterfly, through June 30, 2019, at St. Petersburg Opera Company, Palladium Theater, 253 Fifth Ave. N., St. Petersburg FL. For tickets and information, see

Cast (in order of appearance):
Goro, marriage broker: Stephen Steffens
B.F. Pinkerton: Samuel Hall
Suzuki, Cio-Cio-san's maid: Sahoko Sato-Timpone
Servant#1: Patrick Constantine
Servant #2: Antonio Merced
Sharpless: Daniel Scofield
Cio-Cio-san (Madama Butterfly):Zoya Gramagin
Yakuside, Cio-Cio-san's uncle: Jake Skipworth
Cio-Cio-san's mother: Aleks Ritums
The Aunt: Peilu Ni
The Cousin: Sara Mangrum
The Imperial Commissioner: Rim Karnavicius
The Official Registrar: Chris Green
The Bonze, Cio-Cio-san's uncle: Andrew Potter
Prince Yamadori: Mark Tempesta
Dolore, Butterfly's Child: Izabella Johnson
Kate Pinkerton: Perri Sussman