Out and About: 'Madama Butterfly' in Portland, bluegrass in Brunswick

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No fewer than four singers from New York’s famed Metropolitan Opera will be appearing next week in PORTopera’s 2012 mainstage production of “Madama Butterfly,” Giacomo Puccini’s heartbreaking tale of love and abandonment. PORTopera’s artistic director Dona D. Vaughn directs the stage action, while Stephen Lord returns to conduct the orchestra.

You might think it’s the good old days at the Grand Ole Opry at White’s Beach in Brunswick this weekend. The annual White’s Beach Bluegrass Festival, which showcases mostly Maine singers and ensembles in an alfresco setting, runs July 20-22.

‘Madama Butterfly’

A heartbreaking tale of love and abandonment: That’s the quick take on “Madama Butterfly,” Giacomo Puccini’s celebrated opera. With its gripping libretto and gorgeous melodies, “Madama Butterfly” has fascinated audiences for more than a century.

PORTopera, Maine’s only resident company producing fully staged operas with nationally and internationally acclaimed artists, presents “Madama Butterfly” at Merrill Auditorium July 25 and 27. The opera will be sung in its original Italian, with English supertitles projected above the stage.

“Madama Butterfly” debuted in Italy in 1904. The story is wholly fictional, but it reflects contemporaneous events and interests at the turn of the 20th century. At that time the United States was emerging as a world power, particularly via the U.S. Navy’s growing presence in the Pacific Ocean. Europe was fascinated by Japanese art and culture about that time.

“Madama Butterfly” takes place in early 20th century Japan and represents a clash of American and Japanese values. The tragedy is set up when indulgent, carefree U.S. Navy Lt. Pinkerton casually marries a naive geisha, Cio-Cio San, although he fully intends to marry a “real” American wife once he returns to the U.S. The American consul, Sharpless, warns that his young Japanese bride may not take her vows so lightly, but Pinkerton ignores him.

Pinkerton and Cio-Cio San savor their love – until he leaves for the U.S. and deserts her for three years. Despite pleas from Sharpless and her maid Suzuki, Cio-Cio San remains tirelessly and desperately devoted to her absent husband, believing that he will return some day. When Pinkerton does return he’s got his “real” American wife in tow, and tragedy follows.

For PORTopera’s production, stage director Dona D. Vaughn (she’s also the organization’s longtime artistic director) has picked four singers with major experience in the New York’s Metropolitan Opera, this country’s flagship company.

The coveted title role will be sung by Inna Los, praised for her round soprano voice with luscious, silvery upper register. Los reprises the role of Cio-Cio San after two critically acclaimed performances with Finland’s Savonlinna Opera Festival and Opera New Jersey.

Originally from Moldova , Los began singing professionally in 2004 with the Vienna State Opera. After numerous appearances with various European companies, she made her American debut with Opera New Jersey in 2011. Los joined the Met for its 2011 productions of “Faust,” “La Boheme” and “Otello.”

As Pinkerton, Adam Diegel boasts a tenor voice characterized by powerful top notes and a reputation for dramatic performances. Plus his handsome visage and dashing appearance promise to exasperate audiences: How can such a callous cad look so good? A native of Tennessee, Diegel is an up-and-coming singer with the Met, engaged for this past season in “Das Rheingold,” “Nabucco” and “Madama Butterfly.”

Mezzo soprano Heather Johnson also comes to PORTopera following an illustrious season with the Met. The native Minnesotan made her Met debut in the Summer Recital Series. Following her dramatic portrayal of Cio-Cio San’s maid Suzuki, Johnson will return to New York for the Met’s production of “The Enchanted Island.” Johnson has performed with PORTopera in the past, as Hansel in the 2010 production of “Hansel and Gretel.” Johnson was also one of PORTopera’s Young Artists while a student at the University of Southern Maine. Plus, she has sung several times with the Midcoast Symphony Orchestra.

As consul Sharpless, Vaughn selected Edward Parks, a young charmer with a hauntingly emotive baritone voice. Parks graduated from the Met’s Lindemann Young Artists Development Program (directed by Vaughn) before making his debut in its 2009-2010 season. He has since appeared in several performances with the Met, including Puccini’s “La Fancuilla del West.”

I’m a huge fan of PORTopera, and I particularly admire Vaughn’s emphasis on believable staging and credible characters, featuring artists who are equally comfortable as singers and actors. In the musical department, conductor Stephen Lord has been widely acclaimed for his operatic work and has worked in the pit for several prior PORTopera productions.

All of the musicians are professionals, including many members of the Portland Symphony Orchestra.

PORTopera presents “Madama Butterfly” at Merrill Auditorium at Portland City Hall for two 7:30 p.m. performances, July 25 and 27. Call PortTix at 842-0800.

White’s Beach Bluegrass Festival

Old-time country music performed by your neighbors on the front porch: That’s the big idea behind one of Maine’s smallest bluegrass festivals, happening July 20-22 in Brunswick. White’s Beach Bluegrass Festival, now in its 15th season, features mostly Maine bands who perform on a stage built to resemble a front porch from days of yore.

The venue is White’s Beach campground on the Durham Road. The stage schedule runs Friday evening, all day Saturday and most of the day Sunday. Informal field picking is continuous throughout the three days.

Most of the bands are from Maine. These include Cliff Randall Band, Back to Basics, Cribstone Bridge, Back Woods Road, Grasshoppers and Bobby & Ted.

If there’s any star of the weekend, it’s Ted DeMille, a versatile guitarist and singer from Bath who is also a superb songwriter. Some years ago DeMille emerged as the leading figure in North Star. When North Star disbanded, he continued with a partnership with fiddling phenom Erica Brown. At White’s Beach, DeMille appears as the lead singer/emcee with Cribstone Bridge and as half of Bobby & Ted. The other half? Mandolinist Bobby St. Pierre hails from Harpswell; he has been a musical partner with DeMille in both North Star and Bits and Pieces.

I’m also quite fond of Back to Basics, a Midcoast band that boasts a number of very funny original songs. Cliff Randall Band, from Gardiner, specializes in old-time country music — not just bluegrass. I’ve heard a number of their MP3s, and they’re very impressive.

As with all alfresco festivals, bring lawn chairs, sunscreen and bug spray. Call the campground at 729-0415.

Sidebar Elements

Inna Los sings the starring role of Cio-Cio San in Opera New Jersey’s recent production of Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” Los will be reprising her role in PORTopera’s upcoming production of the heartbreaking tale of love and abandonment, with performances July 25 and 27 at Merrill Auditorium in Portland.