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Opera in the Rock, striving to bring professional opera back to central Arkansas, goes grand with Giacomo Puccini's tragic opera Madama Butterfly, which opened to an officially full house Friday night at Little Rock's Arkansas Repertory Theatre.

The production, a collaboration among the opera company, the Rep and the Arkansas Symphony, soared high with a a staggeringly good array of imported and home-grown voices, combined with simple but elegant staging (by director David Ward) that enhanced the dramatic elements and minimized the operatic evil of "park and bark" -- standing still to deliver arias. It's in the original Italian, with English supertitles projected on the backdrop, a familiar-looking Japanese watercolor.

American naval officer Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton (tenor Daniel Foltz-Morrison), in port in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1904, leases a house (for 999 years) that comes with a resident teenage geisha-wife -- Cio-Cio San, also known as Butterfly (soprano Francesca Mondanaro) -- and, the way the staging works here, a 24-piece orchestra in his backyard. (More on that later.)

For him, it's a marriage of convenience; he brags of more or less having a girl in every port. For her, however, it's an enduring love, so strong that she gives up her religion for him -- much to the scandal of the pack of relatives that show up at her wedding.

Pinkerton, ignoring the warnings of Sharpless, the U.S. consul (baritone Theodor Carlson) that things will turn out badly, sails off on the USS Abraham Lincoln; Butterfly waits breathlessly, desolately and almost destitute, for Pinkerton's eventual return with her servant-maid Suzuki (mezzo-soprano Sarah Stankiewicz Dailey) -- and her toddler son, named "Sorrow" (supernumerary Mari Francis Tucker, winner of a "Cast My Kid" contest, and who has the hardest job on stage -- being silent but incredibly cute; Matalyn Hunter takes the part on Sunday). Since this is tragic, not comic, opera, you can probably guess how things turn out.

Mondanaro has a monster voice that is probably better suited for Verdi than Puccini, but she hits every note -- not just musically but dramatically, with a whole range of impressive expressions and graceful gestures. Her performance of the opera's one "hit" aria, "Un bel di," Butterfly's dream about Pinkerton's "homecoming," completely blew the audience away, as well it should have.

Foltz-Morrison met the immense challenge of filling the theater -- and over the orchestra (conducted by Geoffrey Robson), which is not in the pit but on stage -- a footbridge separates the main body from the enormous collection of gongs, chimes, bells and other percussion instruments in the battery. (You can't do Puccini's fantastic orchestrations and tone-painting justice without a good-sized orchestra, and a good-sized grant helped Opera in the Rock pay for it. Yay!)

Dailey, Carlson and bari-tenor Alex Longnecker as Goro, the snarky marriage broker, were excellent in support. The chorus, too, though I've heard the famous "Humming Chorus" at the end of Act II better done.

Cast, orchestra and the town of Nagasaki will be back onstage at 2:30 p.m. Sunday at the Rep, 601 Main St. That show, too, is sold out, but a limited number of standing-room tickets should be available. More information is available by calling (501) 378-0405 or visiting tickets.therep.org.

Metro on 05/18/2019

Print Headline: Butterfly soars high, grand on Rep's stage

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