ST. PETERSBURG — Lara Michole Tillotson made the most of her debut as Cio-Cio-San in the St. Petersburg Opera production of Madama Butterfly Friday night at the Palladium Theater. Puccini's ill-fated Japanese geisha, abandoned by the U.S. naval officer who married her as a lark, is one of opera's signature roles, and the young soprano gave the kind of confident performance that should lead to many more.
Tillotson has the combination of power and expressiveness required to portray Butterfly, from the ravishing but controlled top notes of her famous aria, Un bel di, to the soft, conversational singing of her letter scene with Sharpless, the American consul. Though Tillotson doesn't look like a 15-year-old, she communicated an air of vulnerable innocence that never lost its hold, right up to the agony of Butterfly's death scene.
Mathew Edwardsen was a suave Pinkerton, the lieutenant whose careless creed of the Yankee vagabond was rousingly espoused in his duet over whiskey with Sharpless. Pinkerton's music is full of pulsating lust, but this is not a sexy Madama Butterfly. When he and Cio-Cio-San make it to the marriage bed, the scene is more chaste than carnal as they partially (and rather laboriously) disrobe to lie on a mat.
Todd von Felker was consistently sympathetic as Sharpless, who tries to clean up Pinkerton's mess. As Suzuki, Butterfly's maid, Barbara LeMay began the evening sounding underpowered, but her flower duet was a joyous thing, as she, Butterfly and the geisha's son, Dolore (May Olson), tossed pink petals around the stage. Nova Safo was an excellent, impish Goro.
St. Petersburg Opera has learned how to work around the limitations of the Palladium, and this time the dominant feature of Todd Olson's direction and the scenic design of T.J. Ecenia is a platform angled across the stage, with conductor Mark Sforzini and the large orchestra crammed behind it. A small ramp jutting off stage right is reserved for dramatic moments. It's where Cio-Cio-San prostrates herself when she is denounced by the Bonze (Diego Baner), where she sings Un bel di and where she spies Pinkerton's gunboat returning to Nagasaki harbor.
Finally, a note on production style. Over the years, I have seen a lot of Madama Butterfly productions in the Tampa Bay area and Sarasota. All have been done in the traditional manner, full of Japanese tea ceremonies and spinning parasols. Yes, the audiences here are conservative, but now that opera is doing pretty well, companies like St. Petersburg Opera need to start taking some risks with the presentation of standard repertory. With a clever, valid reconceptualization of the opera, perhaps Puccini's glorious score could take on fresh meaning. Certainly the theme of Yankee imperialism cries out for creative treatment in a contemporary staging. I can imagine, for example, a giant representation of the American flag being a provocative element of the design. Of course, there's always the possibility, even the likelihood, of a flop when you try something new with a classic, but taking chances is how opera advances, and it's how companies make a name for themselves.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.