Stephanie Smittle
Opera in the Rock’s “Madama Butterfly,” just before the downbeat

When I left the Arkansas Repertory Theatre Sunday afternoon after Opera in the Rock’s production of “Madama Butterfly,” the voice of Francesca Mondanaro — the soprano singing the role of the titular Butterfly — stayed with me. In my post-show ears, of course, but also on the radio, as an episode of Ann Nicholson’s “Arts Scene” was airing on KUAR-FM, 89.1, in which Mondanaro discussed her preparation for the role.

“It’s my own personal discipline,” Mondanaro said on the program, “that no matter what role I am going to perform, or that I’ve been hired to sing professionally, I always do as much research as humanly possible.” This weekend’s two sold-out performances with Opera in the Rock and the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra marked Mondanaro’s first Butterfly. To ready for it, she spent nine months immersing herself in what she called a “creative primordial soup.” She read books about geisha training. Having moved back to New York City after four years in Berlin, Germany, she spent time in the Asian wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She visited the Japan Society house near the Chrysler Building and the United Nations Headquarters. “You just kind of pull at everything that you can,” she said. “The creative process in general is not logical by nature. Creativity and creative energy is sort of associative and not logical, so you just sort of pickle and marinate in all of this information, and then there’s the homework that you do on the role itself, which is the score and the libretto and what the composer is asking of you. It takes a lot of work, so for two performances, the work started almost a full year ago.”

That work, that “primordial soup,” paid tangible dividends on stage; it let Mondanaro know what Butterfly might do with her hands to illustrate her beloved ascending a hill barely visible. It let her float across the stage and posture delicately for her American brokered husband, B.F. Pinkerton (sung radiantly by a debonaire Daniel Foltz-Morrison). It gave her the context to know how doting Butterfly’s tone might be when addressing her young child (played Sunday by a criminally adorable Matalyn Hunter), and how sharp it might be when addressing her servant Suzuki (sung here dutifully and deferentially by Sarah Stankiewicz Dailey). All that “soup” was, in part, what I loved about Mondanaro’s interpretation of Puccini’s seminal 1904 tragedy.

The other part? Y’all, Mondanaro. Just. Came. Through. Drippin.’ The soprano’s instrument is a beast with strength to spare. A friend remarked that it sounded “like money, just … expensive,” which is terrifically apt. Pinning the consonants artfully across vowel-driven phrases, and communicating all the playful and bizarre colors the Italian language can have, Mondanaro brought the libretto to absolute life. Her lines were smooth and spinning and radiant, and so nimble that she was able to lend that lovely element of surprise Puccini’s phrases possess, in the right hands — the kind where you’re not sure if a line of dialogue is going to blossom suddenly and swell upward, or demure modestly in a downward flutter and disappear. Even better? Mondanaro wasn’t just in it for the arias and (spoiler) her death scene. Her approach to the role was holistic: even the tiniest phrase had been considered and shaped carefully, making the quarter hours between Puccini’s rapturous arias fly by seamlessly.

Is Mondanaro’s tone a little too dark and Maria Callas-y for a character who’s supposed to be 15 years old when we first meet her? Maybe for some. For this listener, give me Mondanaro’s velvety middle range, focused high notes and round, cavernous chest voice any damn day of the week over an acrobatic coloratura who’s twiddling her thumbs until she can pop out that high B flat and hold it ‘til kingdom come. Besides, Mondanaro’s range, depth, drama and maturity are what Puccini gave to the role, deliberately and by design.

Other highlights, of course, were a few bold choices on the part of the director, set designer and stage manager. Chiefly, the choice to put conductor Geoffrey Robson and the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra on stage alongside the singers let us see the performance as a cohesive whole and, in my opinion, served the production worlds better than some matrix of feather-light sliding Japanese doors, so often used to lend a “Butterfly” a sense of visual dimension. After all, in Puccini’s many-colored score, the orchestra is not merely accompaniment. It serves as sun and sky and sea. It serves as the distant city of Nagasaki below Butterfly’s hillside perch. It serves as a distant, fetishized America. Placing the players right in front of us — giant gongs and outsized percussion and all — let the audience feel that orchestral poetry in a more visceral way than if it’d been in a pit.

Not to be missed, either, was the sense of excitement in an audience starved for stellar opera in Central Arkansas. The line at will call was a buzzing filament between lobby and box office window, and the energy at least as electric as it was on opening night of “Chicago” earlier this year, The Rep’s bombshell return to production after a financially-catalyzed hiatus.

Finally, I should mention another unlikely star of the show: the English supertitles. (Filing that sentence immediately under “Things I Never Thought I’d Say.”) While every opera house in the world is tasked with either discreetly transmitting the subtitles onto seat-side displays for each individual attendee or projecting them in some unobtrusive way on stage, Opera in the Rock’s production put Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa’s poetry front and center, allowing audience members to absorb the translation along the same sightlines as the characters singing them. Who needs to hide the words away, anyway, when an opera is full of phrases like, “She moves like a figure painted on a screen, and then suddenly, she detaches herself from the glistening lacquer painting”?