Imperfect But Effective New “Butterfly”

United StatesUnited States Puccini, Madama Butterfly: Soloists, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Marco Armiliato (conductor), Civic Opera House, Chicago. 26.10.2013 (JLZ)


Madama  Butterfly Phot (c) Dan_Rest
Madama Butterfly
Photo(c) Dan_Rest

Cio-Cio-San: Amanda Echalaz (October performances; Patricia Racette for the January performances)
Pinkerton: James Valenti (October performances; Stefano Secco for the January performances)
Suzuki: MaryAnn McCormick
Sharpless: Christopher Purves
Goro: David Cangelosi
Bonze: David Govertsen
Kate Pinkerton: Laura Wilde
Yamadori: Anthony Clark Evans
Commissioner: Richard Ollarsaba
Registrar: Will Liverman
Conductor: Marco Armiliato
Original Director: Michael Grandage
Revival Director: Louisa Muller
Designer: Christopher Oram
Original Lighting Designer: Neil Austin
Chorus Master: Michael Black
Stage Manager: Caroline Moores (October performances; Danilel Sokalski, for the January performances)


A staple of Lyric Opera of Chicago since Maria Callas played the title role in 1955, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly has been given a new production co-produced with Houston Grand Opera and Grand Théâtre de Genève. This new staging replaces the venerable one by Broadway director Hal Prince, which had been in use for several decades. In contrast to Prince’s detailed house, the new set by Michael Grandage is spare, with an S-shaped slanted pathway centered onstage.  Instead of Prince’s realistic structure that rotates, showing various perspectives of Pinkerton and Butterfly’s home, Grandage’s design uses sliding panels. Rooms do not exist in this abstract design, except when denoted by the opening of a door or the knocking on the stage floor, as Sharpless does when he approaches the house. Yet some details connote Japanese culture, such as the trees in the background and the paper lanterns that illuminate the love scene at the end of the first act. While this style is not a problem on its own, the set ultimately affects the acoustics, with the sound inexplicably unfocused in the otherwise optimal Lyric space.

Unfortunately, the sound was consistently loud and undifferentiated, with the orchestral timbres rarely achieving the nuance Puccini indicates in the score. While the balance within the orchestra was generally fine, the unrelenting volume detracted from some of the delicate passages. Pitch was sometimes a problem with the woodwinds, especially the oboes. These problems in the pit may have affected the voices, since the principals exhibited similar intonation issues throughout the evening. At times, tenor James Valenti was noticeably flat in some of the sustained passages, and this was at odds with his otherwise valiant approach to Pinkerton. Some of those problems occurred in the love duet at the end of Act I (“Viene la sera”) but were absent from Pinkerton’s third-act aria “Addio fiorito asil”).

As Butterfly, South-African soprano Amanda Echalaz reprised the role which she has sung in various houses around the world. Echalaz offers a full-voiced characterization, which sometimes is at odds with the demure young woman depicted in the libretto. Yet she offered a subtle approach to the famous second-act aria “Un bel di” which received warm applause from the otherwise reticent audience.

The other roles were well cast, with Maryann McCormick serving as an exemplary Suzuki. McCormick articulated the part nicely, with her fine mezzo-soprano supporting Echalaz in their duets. Christopher Purves was similarly strong as Sharpless, which he characterized both vocally and dramatically. This baritone, who has recorded the title role in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, made Sharpless work well in this production. David Cangelosi gave good voice to the character of Goro, a part he reprised from Lyric’s previous production. As the Bonze, bass-baritone David Govertsen was powerful in pronouncing the curse that separates Butterfly from her family and community.

While these roles were handled well, one of the challenges of this opera is the extended orchestral passage at the end of the second act, when Butterfly and Suzuki (along with the child) await Pinkerton’s return. In this production the break seemed to stop the action, rather than set up the third act dénouement. This may be due to the static volume of the orchestra, but also to the lack of onstage action. Here the slanted S-shaped bridge rotated slowly, with Butterfly leaning upward and Suzuki prostrate. The scene seemed to go nowhere, and the ambient sounds from the audience suggested ennui, rather than anticipation for the climactic scene that follows. Even so, the finale played out powerfully, as shown by the enthusiastic audience response—damp cheeks and wet eyes attested to that.

James L. Zychowicz

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