Boston Lyric Opera launches season with a largely successful “Butterfly”

November 3, 2012 at 2:24 pm

By Angelo Mao

Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio-San and Daxton Cochran Jesser as Sorrow in Boston Lyric Opera's production of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly." Photo: Eric Antoniou

Boston Lyric Opera’s Madama Butterfly opened Friday night at the Shubert Theatre to a well-deserved resounding ovation. The success is vindication of the BLO’s investment in entirely new productions for its season, a decision that makes it one of few professional opera companies in the U.S. to do so. That the BLO is committed to mounting new productions for even warhorse operas like Butterfly is heartening, and the fruit of such labor—as seen last night—was, if not completely successful, still deeply satisfying.

Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, like his Tosca and La Boheme, is a perennial favorite, but it has arguably left an even deeper impression on the broader American cultural canvas than any other opera. The story is simple: Cio-Cio-San, a Japanese geisha, enters a sham marriage with the American sailor Pinkerton. The catch is that she considers it a real marriage, and spends the next three years waiting steadfastly for his return. When Pinkerton does return, it is with a “real American wife.” Her world shattered, Cio-Cio-San commits suicide via ritual seppuku.

The specter of seppuku—the ritual Japanese ceremony of suicide—hangs over the BLO’s interpretation of the opera. Right after the curtain rises we see a masked man, Cio-Cio-San’s father, committing seppuku, almost as through a Noh drama. It is a noble conception, but one wonders if somehow it misses the point. There is little in the libretto to make Cio-Cio-San’s suicide rational, yet her death is credible and, in fact, inexorable only within the visceral internal logic of the score.

Regardless how successful the production was in appreciating the heart of Madama Butterfly, the BLO certainly mounted an energetic and often stunning show. Cio-Cio-San’s house, with its sliding doors and ceilings, somehow managed to form the horizon and float above the stage, casting elegant shadows across the floor. Dinyar Vania’s Pinkerton and just about every other actor playing an American added an extra edge of reality by smoking casually on stage. It was a strangely effective way of implying their moral bankruptcy.

BLO’s casting was equal to its production. Visually, Yunah Lee was the perfect Butterfly, looking slightly too small for her gown as the first-act “child bride” and embodying tragic dignity at the end. Although she pushes her middle voice to give it the required heft for the role, her top notes open thrillingly. More importantly, she correctly negotiates the half-sung half-spoken quality that comprises large portions of Puccini’s score. Her singing is thoroughly musical and it was a delight to hear proper Italian portamenti sung by a clear lyric voice.

Dinyar Vania’s Pinkerton suffered pitch problems in Addio, fiorito asil, and his high notes sometimes lacked the warm cover that varnished his lower range. He delivered where it counted, however, sounding firm in the penultimate high note for Addio and for the high C that caps the Act 1 duet. Dramatically, Vania sang and acted with agreeable spontaneity. He was the American bad boy, on shore for some fun, but also genuinely infatuated with his “bride.” The eroticism of the wedding night duet was sublimated with remarkable effectiveness by his handling of her hair.

Weston Hurt’s Sharpless perfectly embodied the consul’s kind, cautious, but ultimately ineffectual character. Kelley O’Connor gave an understated performance as Cio-Cio-San’s maid, Suzuki, and the combination of her strong mezzo and Lee’s lyric soprano in the Flower Duet was a highlight of the evening.

Michael Colvin’s Goro provided an excellent spark of comic relief, and David McFerrin, in the short role of Prince Yamadori, was a worthy foil, vocally and in terms of stage presence, to Vinia’s Pinkerton.

Rounding out the BLO creative team was Andrew Bisantz as conductor, who drew a sympathetic and lively performance from the orchestra, holding back Puccini’s thick orchestration to make room for his singers, and pulling out the stops when appropriate. The chorus sang with discipline and accuracy, never swamping the principals and providing especially beautiful ensemble vocalism in the Humming Chorus.

Madama Butterfly will be repeated 3 p.m. November 4 and 11 and 7:30 p.m. November 7 and 9 at the Shubert Theatre.

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