At her wedding, early in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” Cio-Cio-San coyly answers a question from Sharpless, the American consul in Nagasaki, about her age. She is 15, she says, adding, “I’m already old.”
Sharpless can hardly hide his shock. Though alarmed by the cavalier way that Pinkerton, an American Navy lieutenant, has courted Cio-Cio-San, the geisha known as Butterfly, he has not really tried to prevent this marriage. But 15? That’s an age for “playing games,” Sharpless says.
Though Cio-Cio-San is a teenager, and Pinkerton a young man, these roles require mature, rich, full voices. Even singers well into their 30s are often too underdeveloped.
So it was affecting to see such a gifted and committed young cast in “Madama Butterfly” on Thursday night when the Martina Arroyo Foundation, which provides training and performance opportunities to emerging singers, presented a production at Hunter College, the first of two offerings in the foundation’s Prelude to Performance program.
Taehwan Ku, the tenor singing Pinkerton, is in the master’s degree program at Manhattan School of Music. The soprano Brandie Sutton, portraying Cio-Cio-San, at 32, is in the early stage of a professional career and already has some significant credits. If, now and then, you could hear signs of effort in their singing, the freshness and expressivity of the performances won you over. The detailed, confident work of the entire cast surely resulted from good coaching during the weeks of preparation that the program provides. And the 660-seat Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College is a helpfully intimate space for young voices.
Ms. Sutton brought a warm, ample voice to Cio-Cio-San, with nice bloom in her high notes and tenderness in soft, melting phrases. There is already a distinctive, earthy coloring in her sound that she used to advantage in Cio-Cio-San’s moments of shame and despair, when it sinks in that Pinkerton, gone for three years, has returned, but with an American wife.
Mr. Ku’s voice, though still light for the role, has natural warmth and ping. He may have lacked the swagger that Pinkerton should have. But he was at his best during the soaring, emotionally complex duet with Cio-Cio-San on their wedding night, when Pinkerton wonders whether his powerful desire is a passing whim or a real emotional claim.
The production, directed by Gina Lapinski, though simple and traditional in look, was sensitive and nuanced. Hyona Kim, a vibrant mezzo-soprano, was an endearingly good-hearted Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San’s servant. Alexander Lee brought a bright tenor voice and impish vitality to Goro, the scheming marriage broker. Young Kwang Yoo’s solid baritone voice and stolid bearing suited Sharpless.
At the core of the performance was the excellent, experienced conductor Willie Anthony Waters, who drew stylish and urgent, if sometimes scrappy, playing from the orchestra.