The Baltimore Opera Company began the season in financial trouble and showed off a juicy Carmen in Isola Jones. It ends its 40th year in good financial graces and with soprano singing Madama Butterfly as beautifully as Giocomo Puccini fans might ever hope.
Watanabe's Baltimore debut as Cio-Cio-San Saturday at The Lyric was one of the highlights of the music season here. From the moment her entering voice sailed over the other geishas, she was a wonder to hear. Her voice was as pure in its phrasing, tone and sureness as her sincere parting words to Kate Pinkerton: "Be happy always, don't feel sad for me."
The geisha's first act "Rapturous night" love duet with tenor Richard Estes as Pinkerton and her Act II solo "One fine day" were models of Watanabe's vocal suppleness and passion laid cleanly over all the voice registers.
On stage for virtually 75 minutes and singing most of that time in the combined Acts II and III, the soprano continually intensified her contribution to the production's musical success. Also notable were a duet with Sharpless sung by baritone Richard Fredricks ("Now at last") and a dramatic lullaby for her son Trouble.
And the singer can act. Watanabe played out the innocence and agonies of Butterfly's love for Pinkerton and their son in delicate gestures using face, hands and body. Her mist of misunderstanding made agonizing Butterfly's hope, "I know he's coming" and "He's back and he loves me", before she tells her son "You are with God and I have my sorrow."
The pathos was most intense when with backs to the audience, Cio-Cio-San, Trouble and Suzuki, sung by mezzo-soprano Yun Deng, strained to watch for Pinkerton's return. Voices from the harbor (off-stage chorus members) hummed the letter theme heard earlier as the sky darkened. In pure Puccini, the orchestra instruments played themes boldly and became voices themselves. The still life scene of the all-night vigil was powerful.
The soprano's farewell to Trouble and emotional death scene easily melted the hard-hearted and satisfied patrons thirsty for operatic emotion, the last of many scenes so clearly calculated that way by the composer in the opera set in early 20th Century Nagasaki.
A native of Japan, Watanabe lives in Milan with her husband, Italian tenor Renato Grimaldi. While her musicality and presence dominated the virtually sold-out house, the Baltimore Opera Orchestra under conductor Anton Guadagno was also in top shape.
In its best performance this year, it showed off the bittersweet Puccini melodies that go back and forth between Italian music styles and the five-tone scale of oriental music (play the black piano keys only and you can hear it).
Bliss Herbert's stage direction kept the two hours of music at a brisk pace with one intermission between a 45-minute Act I and 75-minute remainder.
Tenor Estes was an agile Pinkerton whose voice, however, was small and sometimes didn't make it fully past the orchestra. While acceptable in the lower registers, his instrument was pinched at the top. He sang animatedly the first act song of Yankee travelers and was the proper wimp lieutenant at the end, arriving and leaving with considerable speed and shame.
Fredricks and Deng were showed fine tone and phrasing in their key supporting roles as the sensible consul Sharpless and the loyal maid Suzuki. Also singing well were Joaquin Romaguera as the marriage broker Goro, Chinese baritones Chai-Lun Yueh as the suitor Yamadori and Sun Yu as the bully Bonze.
Other roles were sung by Steven Marking as the official registrar, George Fischer as the imperial commissioner and Phyllis Burg as Kate Pinkerton. Brandon Weill was Trouble.
Typical of William Yannuzzi's work in clear subtitle translations were phrases such as Sharpless' advice to Pinkerton, "Be careful", Susuki's verdict on Butterfly, "Her sun has set" and Yamadori's own sorrow, also fit for Butterfly, "Of all unbearable things, hopeless love is the worst."
Allen Charles Klein designed the effective Japanese house and garden setting under cherry trees and elaborate geisha and other costumes. Michael Newton-Brown was the lighting designer.
Tickets sales for "Butterfly" may be the heaviest in company history, a spokesman said. Of 9,848 available seats for four performances, more than 9,000 have already been sold. Close to 100 per cent sales may be rung up by the end. Remaining performances are at 8:15 p.m. Wednesdayand Friday and at 3 p.m. Sunday. Call 685-0692.