This past Saturday in Pittsfield, MA a new opera company, the Berkshire Opera Festival was born. With its inaugural production of Madama Butterfly opening for a three performance run at the Colonial Theatre, it was an auspicious event in the cultural life of this culture-rich area. The second performance is Tuesday, August 30, and the final performance is Friday, September 2.
This is a fully-staged presentation of Puccini’s popular opera with an outstanding international cast, a chorus of talented singers from the Berkshires and an excellent orchestra of musicians from Massachusetts and nearby. The staging is fairly simple but effective, enhanced by lighting which emphasizes the changing moods of the piece.
This is a birth which has had a long gestation. The idea for the company first began some 17 years ago, but it has been the subject of intense effort of fundraising, recruiting performers and staff and organizing the company in the last two years. The co-founders, Jonathan Loy and Brian Garman, also served as stage director and conductor respectively. Both have long professional resumes, working with companies such as New York City Opera, Seattle Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Santa Fe Opera and more.
Similarly the cast has had a wide experience. Moldavian soprano Inna Los was the highlight of this performance, both as the giddy young bride and as the young mother determined that she has not been abandoned and that the man she loves will return. She has sung Cio-Cio-San at Michigan Opera, New Jersey Opera, in Finland, and has sung leading roles at the Vienna State Opera, Deutsche Oper, and she has also sung at the Metropolitan Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago. Her handsome Pinkerton, Jason Slayden, has also been seen at Lyric Opera, Opera Michigan, Colorado Music Festival and Opera Santa Barbara. One of the veterans of the cast is Weston Hurt, an excellent baritone, whose Sharpless ached with the frustration of being unable to convince Cio-Cio-San that Pinkerton was not worth waiting for. His fear for the tragedy awaiting her was palpable. Sarah Larsen will be debuting this season at the Metropolitan Opera. Her website notes that Suzuki is her signature role, and indeed she has the character of the faithful Japanese servant very well in hand. Her traditional demeanor serves in this production as a major contrast to Cio-Cio-San in Act II, who expresses her new status as an American wife in her clothing and haircut and is freer in movement than is possible in kimono. The production is set in the 1960’s, and the men other than the Bonze wear business or formal suits with a draped indication of Japanese traditional dress. We also witnessed what is most likely the stage debut of Lily Shepardson as Sorrow, Cio-Cio-San’s child. She showed great stage presence portraying a child of less than three years of age. One hopes to watch her career grow along with that of the Berkshire Opera Festival.
The Company also had help from Greenfield Community College students, who painted the backdrop for the set and became the subject of a news story on New England Public Radio.
There are two more chances to see Madama Butterfly at the Colonial Theatre, August 30 and September 2. At the other end of the state, Boston Lyric Opera opens its season with Calixto Bieito’s production of Bizet’s Carmen September 23 at the Boston Opera House.