Alyson Cambridge stars in the Florentine Opera's powerful production.

When Alyson Cambridge finally made her appearance as Cio-Cio San in the Florentine Opera’s dynamo production of Madama Butterfly this weekend, nothing about her prepares you for the dramatic and musical fireworks of the next two hours. Meekly meeting her future husband, the American Naval officer Pinkerton, she was the epitome of a blushing bride—giggly, submissive, all but hiding behind her entourage of Japanese geishas.

But Cambridge went on to show us why Giacomo Puccini’s tragic story continues to thrill audiences, despite its problematic racial stereotypes and melodramatic narrative. Musically and physically Cambridge blossoms, maturing and growing in the security she mistakenly feels. Her approach to one of the most daunting of Puccini’s roles was fearless, bringing rounded warmth to the more lyrical passages but erupting with brazen power when the music called for it.

Her courage was no doubt enabled by her primary musical partner, Francesco Lecce-Chong, conducting the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. Making his debut at the Florentine, the former Associate Conductor of the MSO clearly showed the rapport he built over the last four years. And his sensitivity as an accompanist. After a few unbalanced ensembles in the first few minutes, Lecce-Chong and the orchestra were perfect partners, beautifully shaping Puccini’s melodic lines, and delivering the requisite brassy power when the score required it.

Director William Florescu assembled an accomplish cast to work alongside Cambridge. Although he seemed physically uneasy onstage, tenor Eric Barry brought soaring lyricism to Pinkerton when the role required it. Julia Mintzer (Suzuki) and Mark Walters (Sharpless), by contrast, powerfully embodied their roles, both dramatically and musically.

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The production—which used costumes and sets from other companies—looked great, as well. But even a Zeffirelli-grade production will pale if it isn’t dramatically and musically true. Here, Florescu and his musicians and actors created something truly special.

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