By James L Zychowicz
Reprinted with permission from Seen and Heard – Music Web’s Live Opera, Concert and Recital Reviews.
Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Lyric Opera of Chicago, Sir Andrew Davis (conductor) Civic Opera House, Chicago 20.12.2008 (JLZ).
The Act I Set
Among all the recent celebrations of the 150th anniversary of the birth of Giacomo Puccini, this single production of Madama Butterfly by Lyric Opera of Chicago in its 2008-2009 season may seem modest, but it is an intense and effective staging of the opera that pays tribute to the long-standing Puccini tradition in this house. Dating from the early 1990s, the production, originally by Hal Prince, remains engaging for its successful fusion of elements from traditional Japanese theater with Puccini’s enduring tragedy. In the century since its premiere in 1904 at La Scala, Madama Butterfly has been staged in all all manner of presentations, and the present one, familiar to Chicago audiences for about 15 years, remains impressive. Like all good opera, the staging is solidly musical and theatrical, and the present production benefits from an extremely fine cast and delivery.
Patricia Racette, familiar to audiences around in the US and Europe, for her command of a wide variety of roles, gave a compelling portrayal of the title character with fine singing and excellent acting. As Liu in Lyric’s production of Turandot in the 2006-2007 season, Racette demonstrated to Chicago audiences her affinity for Puccini’s music, and this production of Madama Butterfly revealed her mastery of it. Ms Racette approached the music as if it were composed for her, since her voice is exactly within the required range for the role. She was able to convey the youthfulness needed in the first act while, conveying all the strong emotions of the scorned first wife when the drama culminates at Pinkerton’s return.
This evenness of vocal ability also allowed Ms Racette to produce all of the colours required for a subtle characterization. This was most evident in her masterful performance of the familiar second-act aria “Un bel dì vedremo,” since she sang the passages that lead up to the piece with increasingly longer sustained phrases. By doing this, Ms Racette held firm to the composer’s intentions, fully honoring the conventions of Verismo opera in which lyricism is allowed only when it when it fits the drama exactly, rather than being constrained by the earlier operatic structures of recitative and aria, a convention which belongs to another style.
Yet the dramatic aspects of this role are essential to its successful execution, and Puccini deliberately built into the work some elements that assist. For one, Cio-Cio-San makes it clear that she is an American wife in the first act, which, allows her to behave outside of her nominally Japanese character. Ms Racette used this as an opportunity to make the most of the places in the opera that demonstrate cultural differences and her wholehearted involvement in the role was evident in her acting, her eye contact, physical gestures, and demeanor. More than that, near the end, when Cio-Cio-San becomes resolved about her fate, and Japanese honor trumps American naturalization, she bows pronouncedly to Suzuki, and this underscores her decision eloquently. At that point Ms Racette noticeably sang with minimal vibrato, accentuating the music which Puccini makes more overtly pentatonic as he draws the work to its tragic conclusion. All in all., Ms Racette gave a festival-quality performance in this production.
Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio-San
Frank Lopardo was an equally fine Pinkerton. As with Patricia Racette, the required range is well within his voice, and he made the part sound as natural as if he were speaking it. His interaction with the Bonze was particularly effective for its almost heartfelt warning off of the nay-saying uncle, and he emphasied this decisive moment through the intensity of his singing. Afterwards, the duet with Cio-Cio-San made perfect sense as a return to calm in their fragile, short-lived intimacy. With “Addio, fiorito asil,” in the third act, he revealed his true sentiments forcefully as he essentially closed the door on any prospect of keeping in contact with his Japanese wife. If Mr Lopardo’s intrepretation underscored all aspects of Pinkerton’s self-centered personality, his performance at the end of the opera gave a sense of the shock and regret his character perceives when he finds that his Butterfly had just taken her own life. As much as this music is familiar, this point was particularly moving, emphasised by the Kabuki stage-gestures that Hal Prince uses in this production, in which the black-robed and veiled stage hands pull a red cloth from Cio-Cio-San’s costume to indicate her demise.
This particular gesture was just one of the elements of the production that make it effective. Without other kinds of gratuitous Orientalism brought into an otherwise Eurocentric production, the three-dimensional, revolving stage turned by the stage hands gives a sense of immediacy to the opera. At the core of the set is the home that Pinkerton sets up for his life with Cio-Cio-San, and it occupies the stage neatly, with a porch, steps, and prominent American flag. The rooms are functional enough, and work well to demonstrate the modular walls which emerge in the conversation between Pinkerton and Goro early in the first act. Mounted on a rotor in the center of the stage, this style of set also facilitates the changes of scene by foregoing the closing and opening of a traditional curtain when the set shifts. Other elements, among them the model of a ship taken across the stage by an actor, is a relatively simple gesture that fits well into a production which succeeds in achieving the sometimes difficult fusion of elements from different and antagonistic cultures; essentially, it is a visual presentation of what Puccini put into his score.
The baritone James Westman was a sympathetic Sharpless, whose acting suggested a knowledgeable consul, wary of the dangers of treating Cio-Cio-San as merely ‘a Japanese wife’ , the designation that sets the tragedy into motion. Mr Westman interacted empathically with both Lopardo and Racette, and was particularly moving in the third-act trio “Io so che alle sue pene” with Pinkerton and Suzuki, his clear sound and articulation enhancing his performance. Similarly, Katharine Goeldner was also moving as Suzuki, whose acting matched her fine singing. The remainder of the cast was appropriately suited to the production, with the tenor David Cangelosi, a regular member of Lyric Opera, bringing some humanity to the character of the manipulator Goro.
Supporting all of this was the fine conducting of Sir Andrew Davis. He breathed a freshness and lyricism into the score of this perennial opera, with tempi that fit well into the efficient production. More than merely accompanying the singing, Sir Andrew brought out all of the orchestral passages supporting the stage action, making clear the references to American culture, like the quotations of the US national anthem. His intensity complemented the performers on stage, and it is difficult to imagine the intense scene between Pinkerton and the Bonze, without the equally intense orchestral accompaniment or the commensurate delicacy in the intimate scene that follows it. His mastery of this score clearly helped bring out the best of the performers on stage.
With all that this production of Madama Butterfly offers, it is worth seeing to catch some of the touches unique to this staging. Those unable to attend the remaining performances may hear them in the Lyric broadcasts that are in syndication at the end of the season. It is unfortunate that no video exists yet of this production, but a film of Hal Prince’s staging with an earlier cast has been seen on public television in the United States (with Anna Tonowa-Sintow and Richard Leech).This is a laudable production which is yet another of Lyric Opera’s recent fine contributions to modern opera stagings, which is all the more laudable for being reprised with an excellent cast, especially with Patricia Racette as Madama Butterfly.
Original Production: Harold Prince
Director: Vincent Liotta
Set Design: Clarke Dunham
Lighting: Christine Binder
Conductor: Sir Andrew David
Chorus Master Donald Nally
Lt. B. F. Pinkerton: Frank Lopardo
Goro: David Cangelosi
Suzuki: Katharine Goeldner
Sharpless: James Westman
Cio-Cio-San (Madama Butterfly): Patricia Racette
The Imperial Commissioner: Craig Irvin
The Official Registrar: Daniel Billings
The Bonze: Paul Corona
Prince Yamadori: Coery Crider
Kate Pinkerton: Amber Wagner