Last night we saw the first performance in our abbreviated Lyric Opera subscription, Madama Butterfly. Butterfly’s libretto takes its plot from the 1900 David Belasco play which itself is an adaptation of John Luther Long’s 1898 short story, “Madame Butterly”, from which it deviated somewhat. Belasco really knew how to work an audience.
The pathos in Madama Butterfly arises from the tension between what the audience knows and what Butterfly believes. The audience knows that Pinkerton is a shnook and that their love is doomed. Butterfly loves Pinkerton and believes he loves her and her faith in him is unshakeable. Events flow inexorably on, buoyed by Puccini’s glorious music, to its tragic end.
The production we saw last night is a new production, from the Houston Opera company. For the last twenty years we’ve been seeing the brilliant Hal Prince production of Butterfly and, frankly, the new production suffers somewhat in comparison. It’s workmanlike but not brilliant.
James Valenti’s performance as Pinkerton was functional, which is typical of Pinkertons. I don’t think that Puccini was capable of writing an unlovely note but Pinkerton’s music is fairly typical Puccini tenor but has no great aria. The character of Pinkerton is so unsympathetic I’m not sure what a great performance as Pinkerton would be like.
I found Amanda Echalaz’s performance as Cio-Cio San unsatisfying. She wasn’t horrible but I don’t think she really did justice to the role. I think I’ll leave it at that.
Christopher Purves’s portrayal of Sharpless was perhaps the best Sharpless I’ve ever seen. His Sharpless illustrated what a fine singer-actor can do with a part and I’ll look forward to appearances by Mr. Purves at Lyric in the future.
We were astonished at the tiny Tye Oren Pauley’s performance as Pinkerton and Butterfly’s child. The kid did a great job and put up with an enormous amount, especially for one so young. Bravo.
One last note on last night’s performance. The orchestra section of Civic Opera was about a quarter empty for the performance. I honestly don’t see how Lyric can survive without filling the house, especially when they’re staging one of the most beloved operas in the repertory. Whether the problem was the economy, the production, the lack of bankable stars in the production, or bad advance press for the production, clearly there’s a problem and Lyric needs to address it.
A large, raked semicircular ramp snakes around the back of the stage. For the “Humming Chorus” and Butterfly’s all-night vigil as she awaits Pinkerton’s return, the ramp revolves so that she is gazing out at the audience from downstage. A sliding Japanese screen is all that’s needed to suggest the house she shares with her devoted maid, Suzuki. Other artful design touches – a blushing-pink dawn, orange paper lanterns set against an azure sky, wispy suggestions of pines and cypresses – are there to frame the emotional arc of Puccini’s lyric tragedy.
But something appears to have gone missing in the translation from Houston to Chicago, or at least did so on opening night. Routine staging by Louisa Muller, the revival director, failed to get much out of anybody during the first act. The orchestra also sounded out of sorts at the outset, until it, too, hit its musical stride in the second and third acts.
As the delicate child-bride of the first act, Echalaz’s Butterfly came across as self-possessed, very much in control, so that the heroine’s childlike innocence and vulnerability had to be guessed at. The love duet between her and Pinkerton came off stiffly, with little apparent chemistry between the characters, and neither performer appearing in his or her best vocal form. Her vibrant, voluminous soprano turned hard and edgy, losing steadiness and going astray of pitch at the top whenever pressure was applied. He had no top to speak of.
“Un bel di,” the opera’s best-known music, in which Butterfly affirms her undying faith that her lover will return, was capably sung but its impact was undermined by awkward, semaphore-like hand gestures that detracted from the persona this intelligent artist was trying to project. While Valenti certainly cut a tall, dark, handsome figure in Pinkerton’s naval whites, his singing lacked line and nuance and he didn’t do much with the character dramatically beyond striking conventional, all-American-jock stances.
Last night “Un bel di” was not executed well. Clearly, Mr. Von Rhein saw the same opera I did.
The Sun-Times’s Kyle Macmillan saw something different:
But as handsome as the visuals are, the focus here is squarely on the principal singers (all but one making their Lyric debuts), and all deliver first-rate performances, starting with soprano Amanda Echalaz in the title role as Cio-Cio-San.
Possessing a rich, vibrant voice and moving seamlessly from high to low register, she vividly captured both the geisha’s starry-eyed youthfulness and steely fortitude. Echalaz delivered one vocal highlight after another, from Butterfly’s beautiful love duet with Pinkerton in Act 1 to the character’s final tortured acceptance of her fate.
Looking every bit a strapping naval officer and possessing a fluid, full-bodied tenor voice that could hardly be better suited to this opera, tenor James Valenti seemed completely at home in the role of Lt. B. F. Pinkerton. He made the most of the character’s soaring arias and managed to convey both the character’s blithe self-centeredness and authentic remorse at the end.
Katy Walsh, writing for Chicago Theatre Beat was more impressend than I as well:
I’ve seen Madama Butterfly three times. I’m always blown away by Puccini’s haunting composition that is the epitome of every break up song ever written. He has captured the misery of loving deeply and tragically. For diehard and wannabe opera lovers, this Madama Butterfly is especially exquisite.
Frankly, I think that Ms. Walsh is reviewing Madama Butterfly rather than the performance we saw last night.