Puccini, Madama Butterfly

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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

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ROF’s La Gazza Ladra Sparks Controversy

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Rossini Opera Festival 2007

If ever there was an opera production that put the words “cultural divide” in neon lights, the Rossini Opera Festival’s 2007 production of La Gazza Ladra is it. The striking differences in opinions between Italian opera critics and their English counterparts were planted front and center.

These diverse viewpoints were directly linked to Damiano Michieletto’s direction and Paolo Fantin’s sets whose eagerness to exceed the textual boundaries of Rossini’s most respected opera semiseria ignited the debate. Hugh Canning’s comments in Opera, November, 2007, boiled over the operatic cauldron in total disapprobation. “They (ROF) could also hardly have done worse than engage a young director with ‘ideas’ about La Gazza Ladra, staged as an immigrant’s nightmare…The genius responsible for transforming Rossini’s domestic semiseria into a searing indictment of a police state and implacable judiciary was Damiano Michieletto.” Even as late as November, 2008, David Blewitt in Opera referred to ROF’s new productions in 2007, as, “two concept productions of unmitigated awfulness,” — the other disappointment being Rossini’s Otello.

Stephen Hastings’s perspective in Opera News November, 2007, touched on some of the ideas Italian critics voiced about the work. “The director, Damiano Michieletto, aided by scenographer Paolo Fantin, proved…adept at matching sound and movement, offering a number of striking visual effects (including a stage flooded by rain in Act 11).” In fact, the Italian critics were completely enamored by Michieletto’s and Fantin’s approach which cast a darker hue over the opera’s story than past productions had done.

Claudio Salvi, in Il Messaggero, on August 12th, 2007, said about the first performance, “In a festival which is now basing all its reason for being on modern directors and on young talented casts, the traditionalists have found it difficult to integrate their melomanical beliefs with Damiano Michieletto’s innovative and original direction, and for Pesaro’s new course of action.” Yet, Salvi believed this dreamlike interpretation of La Gazza Ladra worthy of ROF’s fame and as one of the best productions seen at ROF in the last few years. For having bet on this young director and his talented cast, this production represents a kind of awakening from the dark and shows a good dose of courage.

Ivana Baldassarri in the Il Resto del Carlino , on August 12, 2007, noted two significant changes to the plot: one in the opera’s locale from country inn to luxury hotel and the other, transforming the thieving magpie into a young girl who in a bad dream becomes the thief. But the story on the stage still follows the same outline as in Giovanni Carli Ballola’s program notes. “Ninetta, a girl from a good, but poor family has to work as a servant in a rich tenant farmer’s home. She is unjustly accused of stealing and then selling a silver spoon. The mistake is compounded by the hated Podestà (the chief magistrate) who persecutes the girl for rejecting his amorous advances. Ninetta really has sold, to an old-clothed man, a silver spoon given to her by her father, an army deserter in need of money. Tried and condemned to death, Ninetta is saved at the last minute by the chance discovery of the missing spoon in the magpie’s nest.”

In an interview with Il Resto Del Carlino,on August 10, 2007, Michieletto explained to writer Maria Rita Tonti, his reasons for his directorial choices. “Because La Gazza, a complex opera, belongs to the semiserio genre which mixes happy moments with dramatic ones, I thought to find a non-rhetorical way of telling the story that would give a narrative value to the plot while the libretto would not follow the music in a simple and light manner.” He said the idea came to him while reflecting on the Alice In Wonderland fable in which Alice follows the rabbit without asking any questons and finds herself involuntarily involved in a dramatically fearful situation, a necessary ingredient in all fairy tales. In the story’s most terrible moment when the Queen of Hearts is going to kill her, Alice wakes up from the nightmare. The director used this idea, turning the magpie into the personification of a young girl. As the girl falls asleep, she begins to dream, becoming the protagonist in a trip that initially seems wondrous and playful. She finds, however, she is the one blamed for stealing the cutlery and is about to be shot when she suddenly wakes up bringing the opera to an end. What is not imaginary is that Rossini and librettist, Giovanni Gherardini based their work on a true incident where a young girl was put to death for stealing cutlery.

It is Michieletto’s approach to the story that fascinated the Italians and ultimately one they believed in wholeheartedly. The result was they gave the director, in May of 2008, the Franco Abbiati prize for his work at the festival. The prize, named in memory of one of Italy’s greatest music critics, is one of the most prestigious in Italian music circles. Then the French magazine, Diapason, awarded the DVD of La Gazza Ladra, the Diapason d’or as the best disc for the months of July-August.

Rossini Opera Festival

Fortunately, we now have the DVD of ROF’s La Gazza Ladra which opera lovers can judge the merits for themselves. As for the physical production, Fantin, costume designer Carla Teti, and light designer Mark Truebridge compliment Michieletto’s emphasis on the darker side of the opera. The deep reds that accompany the stark white lighting are also reflected in the costumes. In addition to the black and drab brown costumes for Michele Pertusi’s malevolent Podestà and Alex Esposito’s Fernando, the eerie black robes of the judges indicated no mercy for Ninetta’s plight. Michieletto starts out with Sandhya Nagaraja playing a game with small white cylinders that set designer Fantin used throughout the opera, changing their size and stage position to accentuate the opera’s dramatic moments. In the opening scene of Act Two, they resembled sewer pipes sopping in water, representing Ninetta’s jail where Giannetto, her intended, Pippo, her trusted friend and the licentious Podestà come to visit her. No doubt, it is Michieletto’s stark point of view which caused all the critical dissension.

But it is the wonderful musical preparation and execution that makes this performance shine. Lü Jia’s conducting and devotion to his singers fit ROF’s dedication to Rossini’s operas like a glove to hand. Mariola Cantarero’s expressed Ninetta’s nobility and pathos through stellar vocal means. Michele Pertusi’s interpretation might have struck some as too thuggish but his vocal prowess made the role complete. Alex Esposito committed acting and singing as Ninetta’s devoted father was a perfect counterpoint to Pertusi’s bully. These two performers gave the opera its emotional truth. Dmitry Korchak’s Giannetto showed his character’s concern for his beloved, but the upper voice lacked the necesary security. At times, Manuela Custer’s middle voice proved clumsy, but in the second act duet, “E ben, per mia memoria,” her Pippo melded beautifully with Cantarero’s Ninetta. Paolo Bordogna as Fabrizio, Kleopatra Papatheologou as Lucia, Stefan Cifoletti as Isacco and Cosimo Panozzo as Antonio rounded out the cast giving first class interpretations to their smaller roles showing the depth of this production’s musicality.

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Berg, Lulu

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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 22.11.2008 (JLZ)


Director: Paul Curran
Set Design: Kevin Knight
Lighting: David Jacques


Animal Tamer/Athlete: Jan Buchwald
Alwa: William Burden
Dr. Schön/Jack the Ripper: Wolfgang Schöne
Lulu: Marlis Petersen
Painter/Sailor: Scott Ramsay
Professor of Medicine/Professor: Craig Irvin
Schigolch: Thomas Hammons
Prince/Manservant/Marquis: Rodel Rosel
Wardrobe Mistress/Schoolboy: Buffy Baggott
Countess Geschwitz: Jill Grove
Journalist: Corey Crider

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production of Alban Berg’s Lulu is compelling musically, dramatically and visually. With its fine cast which includes Marlis Petersen, one of the outstanding musicians currently portraying the title role, the roles are covered well, and the staging allows them to interact with each other convincingly. The production itself is worthy of note for the innovative tack which Kevin Knight has taken from film.

Not only did Knight allow the character of Lulu to resemble Louise Brooks, who created the role in Pabst’s famous film, Pandora’s Box, but he also used the idea of film to frame each act, from the tableaux which opened them, to the scrimmed “Ende” at the conclusion of the work. In approaching the design in this way, Knight integrated into the production the musical sequence in the second act, for which Berg recommended using film to show the trial, imprisonment, and escape of Lulu, prior to her return to Alwa. The film was no longer anomalous, but part of the visual language of this production. Thus, other elements from film merged into the design to fine effect. With the Louise-Brooks wig of medium-length black hair that seemingly remains perpetually in place, Petersen resembled the image of Lulu as immortalized on film, and the film itself came to life in this production. With the visual element unifying the performance and with the fine leadership that Sir Andrew Davis has given it, this production makes an important work accessible to a wider audience.

As Lulu, Marlis Petersen sang the role easily and convincingly. She has captured the details of the part excellently, with a facility that other singers may not have. If her voice was sometimes difficult to hear, this was the result of the sometimes thick textures in the score, which was also well executed by the orchestra. Petersen’s phrasing made the sometimes angular lines that Berg used to depict his character, emerge with the remarkable clarity otherwise. Her diction, the German of a native speaker, contributed to her success in a role which she has also played in Vienna and other cities. And as incongruous as it may seem, Petersen’s previous role at Lyric was as Adele in the 2006-2007 season, an equally memorable portrayal though in many ways removed from the multidimensional Lulu of Berg’s opera. That aside, the freshness and engaging tone that Petersen brought to Adele actually enlivened her depiction of Lulu. The vocal presence was useful in defining her character, with the passages of Sprechstimme executed beautifully. Likewise, Petersen’s speaking voice lent authority to the limited passages of spoken dialogue at critical points in the drama.

The entire cast formed a tight ensemble in this almost seamless production. Jill Grove chracterised Countess Geschwitz convincingly, with her fatal attraction to Lulu clearly apparent and absent of any affectation. In bringing to life the sometimes surrealistic character of Geschwitz, Grove brought to it the kind of expression that she used to create the role of the Nurse in last season’s production of Strauss’s Frau ohne Schatten. Grove worked very well with Petersen, especially in the second act, where the chemistry between the two must occur almost instantaneously, and the two reacted smoothly with Wolfgang Schöne, who played Dr. Schöne, the tragic victim of Lulu’s acknowledged sincere love.

As Schön, Wolfgang Schöne re-created for this Lyric production a role that has been a mainstay of his career. He delivered with the same facility as Petersen, with his baritone timbre working clearly through the the entire score. Physically, he brought his character to life with appropriate body language and gestures denoting the old man, especially in the second act, where Dr. Schön has become as obsessive about Lulu’s other lovers as Lulu herself was in attracting them. The monologue in which Schön wields the pistol that will seal his own fate was a fine part of the act, a point in this production in which the musical and theatrical pitch was appropriately heightened.

Among the rest of the cast, the American tenor William Burden was three-dimensional as Alwa. No mere pawn of Lulu, Burden gave his part all of the nuance that Wedekind wrote into the character, and his delivery was impeccable. Burden’s voice fits Alwa’s music nicely, and he made the sometimes demanding lines seem effortless. Known for various roles in Britten’s operas, Burden deserves attention for his solid approach to the character of Alwa. At the end of the second act, the scene where Alwa makes love to Lulu at the place where his father, Dr. Schön, died, his evocation of Lulu as an almost ideal beauty was memorable for its soaring line and the seamless handling of Berg’s music.

Thomas Hammons made the mysterious character of Schigolch seem, at times, as much an earth-spirit as Lulu herself, since he, of all the people in opera, seems to have known her long before the action begins. His bass-baritone voice lent appropriate weight to the role, which includes some lines that must rise well above the stave. In the same way, Jan Buchwald gave a fine reading to the dual roles of Animal Tamer and Athlete. In the former role. Buchwald was immediately effective in the prologue, which started in this production on the main floor of the theatre, before he moved to the stage and took the audience into the action of the opera. Even though Buchwald was sometimes difficult to hear form that position, once again this seemed to be because he was struggling against orchestral energy.

Of all the principals, the tenor Scott Ramsay seemed less engaged in the role of the painter, the character whose interest in Lulu sparks the chain of tragic deaths that are crucial to the plot. From the musical level, he gave a fine reading, but it may be that the blocking in this production needs to engage the Painter more effectively to make his part work as well as the others do. Lulu is a difficult score that requires a deft hand at the dramaturgy, something that emerged at times in the various parts which Rodell Rosel had – the humorous touches he gave to the part of the manservant helped to play up Lulu’s presence as a force of nature within her own household. His characterization of the Marquis too gave a nice pointedness to that role, which is crucial to Lulu’s fateful decisions.

Yet it is the principals who must resolve the drama in the final act, with Petersen, Grove, and Burden bringing the work to its dénouement. As Jack the Ripper, Schöne’s determination is menacing from his first entrance. The tragic ending is cinematic in the best sense, and delivers the appropriate catharsis to this highly charged work.

One of the masterpieces of twentieth-century opera, Berg’s Lulu becomes even more compelling in Lyric’s new production. Strong theater on its own merits, the musical content serves the work equally well. Sir Andrew Davis gave remarkable shape to the lines of Berg’s score, such that the dissonant idiom Berg chose for this work was thoroughly accessible, and the musical structures readily perceivable. It is encouraging to see the audiences that Lyric Opera can attract to its productions, and it is even more admirable when a work like Lulu can attract full houses. Lyric Opera of Chicago is to be commended not only for bringing this powerful opera back for new audiences, but also for creating a fine production which enhanced the outstanding execution of the music to great effect.

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