Wichita Grand Opera opened its 10th anniversary season Saturday night with a deeply felt and deeply moving "Madama Butterfly" that soared as much for its fine acting as its strong singing.
Throughout much of the three-act opera, audience members seemed on the edge of their seats, mesmerized by a cast and orchestra that seemed fully in sync as they told the familiar love story.
As is necessary for this opera by Puccini, the soprano singing the title role of Madama Butterfly must command the stage and be its heart and soul. Yunah Lee did just that, convincing the audience with voice, expression and body language of, first, her girlish love for the sailor Lt. Pinkerton, then her unwavering loyalty in the face of abandonment, and finally her heartbreak and dishonor.
Lee hit all of her notes effortlessly, including delivering a highly satisfying and touching version of the opera's most famous aria, "Un bel di." Her closing aria "Con onor muore" teemed with anguish and despair as she said goodbye to her young son and prepared to take her life.
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As Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, tenor Alexey Sayapin also sang with ease and confidence. He succeeded in making the audience yearn for his presence on stage to hear his fine voice, even though his role is certainly the opera's most unsympathetic. The biggest disappointment with Sayapin was his failure to imbue more romance into a tricky role that, at times, felt wooden and unconvincing.
Michael Nansel, one of Wichita Grand Opera's resident artists, impressed again with not only his rich baritone but also a tender and anguished reading of the role of Sharpless. His concern for Butterfly, yet inability to change her fate, were convincingly and movingly delivered.
Suzanne Hendrix gave the role of the maid Suzuki a strong presence in voice and reading, lending essential support throughout to her Butterfly.
Deserving strong praise were Whitney Reader conducting the orchestra and Shayna Leahy directing a mostly seamless stage production. Reader, a Wichita State University graduate, made his professional debut with Wichita Grand Opera. Leahy, 32, made her professional stage directing debut with "Aida" in WGO's 2009 season.
Their efforts were certainly crucial to the mounting of such a successful show.