A Competent Though Not Especially Memorable Madama Butterfly

AustriaAustria Puccini, Madama Butterfly: Soloists, Orchestra and Chorus of the Wiener Staatsoper, Philippe Auguin (conductor), Staatsoper, Vienna, 8.9.2016. (JMI)

Kristīne Opolais as Madama Butterfly © Michael Pöhn


Cio Cio San – Kristīne Opolais
Pinkerton – Piero Pretti
Suzuki – Bongiwe Nakani
Sharpless – Boaz Daniel
Goro – Herwig Pecoraro
Yamadori – Peter Jelosits
Uncle Bonzo – Alexandru Moisiuc
Kate Pinkerton – Lydia Rathkolb
Commissioner – Hans Peter Kammerer


Director – Josef Gielen
Sets and Costumes – Tsugouharu Foujita

I want to begin this review by remembering Johan Botha, who died yesterday morning in Vienna. Without a doubt he was one of the great tenor voices of recent years, although he never became a truly popular divo. He died a victim of the cancer that had forced him to cancel performances from the end of last year. Following treatment, he appeared in June in Budapest and sang the role of Calaf at the Munich Festival in July but, unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse. His death has caught us all by surprise; until a few days ago, he had even been scheduled to star in Turandot at the Staatsoper.

Johan Botha was much appreciated in Vienna, and it is hardly surprising that the Director of the Staatsoper, Dominique Mayer, appeared on stage before the start of Madama Butterfly to dedicate a few heartfelt words to Botha’s career in Vienna and to his memory. The tribute ended with a minute of silence from a standing audience.

Josef Gielen’s staging of Madama Butterfly would appear to have racked up more years of life than many in the Staatsoper audience. Its premiere took place in 1957, and this performance was the 375th, which must be a record. It’s a very traditional and tasteful production, with no conceptual aspects of any kind, and it still works well today. The stage in Act I features an ample space in the centre with the house on the right, a bridge to the left where characters enter and a painted canvas at the back with a view of the bay of Nagasaki. In the second act we are inside the house, where sliding panels open on that view.

The musical direction was again entrusted to Philippe Auguin, but I was somewhat disappointed this time. The first act was short on emotion and quite long on orchestral volume. It’s true that the voices on stage were not exceptional in size, but they were unable to cross the wall of the orchestra. Things improved somewhat in Act II, but the excessive sound continued. Act III, where at least we saw emotion, was the best. Since Karajan’s time, the pit of the Staatsoper has been higher than is usual in other theatres, but this fact should be known to conductors. The orchestra performed at their usual high level, but I enjoyed them less than in previous days. As for the chorus, one could hardly hear the famous ‘coro à bocca chiusa’.

Latvian soprano Kristīne Opolais was Cio Cio San, and was singing the role for the first time in this house. It’s the third time I’ve see her in the character, and I always have the same impression. She is a wonderful actress, one of the best to be seen on any stage, and always able to express emotions in the characters she plays, especially those of verismo. Vocally, things are not at the same level, especially because her volume leaves something to be desired. In the first act, her voice barely reached the audience, and it wasn’t helped by the volume coming from the pit. She improved in Act II, although ‘Un bel dì vedremo’ was not truly outstanding. The best part of her performance took place in the third act, although there was still a problem with volume.

Pinkerton was sung by Italian tenor Piero Pretti, whose voice is not exceptional in quantity and quality, but he did reach the audience more easily than his colleague. His performance was correct, but without any special brilliance.

The Sharpless of Boaz Daniel was competent, if rather routine, while South African mezzo soprano Bongiwe Nakani left a good impression as Suzuki.

In the secondary characters, Herwig Pecoraro was a somewhat ordinary Goro, and Peter Jelosits was a correct Yamadori. Alexandru Moisiuc as Uncle Bonzo lacked power, Lydia Rathkolb made a serviceable Kate Pinkerton and Hans Peter Kammerer was well suited to the role of the Commissioner.

The Staatsoper was fully sold out. The audience did not show great enthusiasm during or at the end of the performance. Kristīne Opolais received the biggest applause.

José M. Irurzun

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