Newborn butterfly

The Seattle Opera takes over a hockey rink with some skillful debuts.


Seattle Center, Mercer Arts Arena, 389-7676. $34-$107 7:30 p.m. Fri., Jan. 18, Sat., Jan. 19, Wed., Jan. 23, Fri., Jan. 25, Sat., Jan. 26; 2 p.m. Sun., Jan. 20

OPENING NIGHT of Seattle Opera's production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly was the occasion of three important debuts.

It marked the first performance of the opera's title role by Sheri Greenawald, who has often performed impressively for Seattle Opera (SO) in sophisticated, worldly roles. Here she plays a young Japanese woman loved and left by Pinkerton, an American naval officer. The part covers an enormous emotional spectrum: At first, the woman's faith in Pinkerton's return is unshakable; but her gradual disillusionment—which Puccini, master manipulator, deploys like a slowly tightening thumbscrew—drives her to suicide. Greenawald's final scenes were superbly gripping, and she displayed all the characteristics of a great Butterfly except—and this is a big "except"—innocence. Admittedly, Puccini has set a near-impossible task here; it's hard to imagine any soprano really pulling off both the blushing teenage geisha of Act I and the magnificently heroic, self-sacrificing mother of Act III.

Purity and lightness of tone might have helped, but Greenawald's voice has a pronounced and opulent vibrato, which once in a while presented an obstacle to clarity of pitch. In the big duets, her voice blended prettily neither with Antonio Nagore's (as Pinkerton) nor with Kimberly Barber's (as her servant Suzuki, an enjoyable and moving performance).

Nagore was in his first engagement with SO, and he displayed a rich and ringing tenor. He was a true cad, with just the right amount of vocal and physical swagger. His guilt and despair in the last act were also utterly convincing.

Butterfly was a good choice for the opening of the Mercer Arts Arena, the reconstituted hall that'll serve as SO's temporary digs until the Opera House's remodeling is complete in August 2003. The one-set opera poses no technical headaches, and its popularity will get change-resistant operagoers into the seats. The auditorium's interior is black, with gray carpet and red and gold seats salvaged from the old Opera House. It feels wonderfully spacious without being cavernous; the walls fold out from the proscenium like an accordion, focusing you on the smaller stage and creating a nice intimacy. The orchestra pit looked comfortable and unstuffy. The lobby area is low-ceilinged and cramped, but that was a given.

The whole space is clean and, in fact, looks rather chic in a way the dated interior of the Opera House didn't. The acoustics, at least from my seat, were fine. The orchestra seemed a bit distant at first, but the climaxes were powerful. All in all, it's a swell place to hear an opera. The Mercer Arts Arena transition team has done a splendid job turning a concrete box into a fresh, attractive, and smoothly functional space.

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