“Stardust and Cherry Blossoms”
The Lyric Opera House
05/10/2008 - and May 14, 16*, 17, 18
Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly
José Luis Duval (Lieutenant Pinkerton), Joseph Hu (Goro), John Packard (Sharpless), Shu-Ying Li (Cio-Cio-San), Kevin Wetzel (Imperial Commissioner), Eugene Summers (Registrar), Brian Juahiainen (Bonze), Misoon Ghim (Suzuki), David Wan (Yamadori), Sara Steward (Kate Pinkerton), Peter Juengst (Trouble)
James Harp (Chorus Master), Stephen Mould (Conductor)
Michael Clarke (U.S. Scenic and Projections Realization), Maurizio Montobbio (Lighting Designer), Alberto Spiazzi (Costume Designer), Anne Nesmith (Wigs and Makeup), Paolo Micciché (Production, Stage and Visual Director)
Paolo Micciché’s new production of Madama Butterfly for the Baltimore Opera, which is based on his original 1999 production for Arena di Verona, is a breath-taking, visual “tour de force” that enhances and elevates Puccini’s beloved score to dramatic heights that are seldom, if ever, reached in contemporary stagings. This high-tech, state of the art production employs projected images instead of scenography. Mr. Micciché’s visual language entwines moving lights and double-scrolling film projectors, which provide a virtual set in movement according to the music. In lesser hands this could be distracting and at odds with the drama and the music. In Micciché’s extremely sensitive and imaginative hands, the music and drama are continually set forth in a revealing manner that most directors can only hint at.
The kaleidoscope of colors is dazzling. For instance, the duet which ends Act I, “Dolce notte, quante stelle” (Sweet night of countless stars), concludes in a nocturnal star shower, which hypnotically transports the entire audience into the far reaches of the Milky Way.
The singing and orchestral playing under the baton of Maestro Stephen Mould is also of the highest order. I have come to expect this from General Director Michael Harrison whose artistic standards are among the very highest of any opera company in the United States.
As Cio-cio-San, soprano Shu-Ying Li is one of the finest Butterfly’s appearing on the International Opera Stage today. She is completely at one with Puccini’s music in her singing and acting, and most impressive in both. Her musical phrases are as well colored as Micciché’s visuals. She has an exquisitely floated high pianissimo and she also possesses well rounded, full voiced, sustained high notes. Her dramatic sense is unfailing. The role of Cio-Cio-San is one of the most demanding in the soprano repertoire, and she gives the audience the full measure of the score. Her delivery of the great aria “Un bel di vedremo” is most memorable. It is fascinating to watch her as she develops her characterization throughout the evening, building to a death scene that is overwhelming in its tragedy.
The other principals of the cast are also excellent but not quite in her league. As Pinkerton, José Luis Duval displays a well-trained and beautiful lyric tenor voice with ringing high notes. His portrayal, however, seems strangely dispassionate and emotionally uninvolved. His performance is greatly enhanced by the thrust of Micciché’s visuals.
Misoon Ghim, on the other hand, gives a committed and well-detailed portrayal as Butterfly’s servant Suzuki. Her warm and golden timbered mezzo-soprano voice is an excellent complement to that of Ms. Li. Her singing in the Flower Duet of Act II is one of the vocal highlights of the evening. She is poignant and moving in the final moments of the opera, as she is the first to grasp the impending tragedy set in motion by the return of Pinkerton and his American wife.
Joseph Hu is excellent in the role of Goro. His well-projected voice is of a quality not normally heard in comprimario tenors. Baritone John Packard also delivers a first rate performance as Sharpless, the American Consul. It is refreshing to see this role performed as a younger man instead of an aging diplomat.
Peter Juengst is a standout as Butterfly and Pinkerton’s son Trouble. He charms the audience and received a small ovation. Brian Juahiainen is imposing in his brief appearance as the Bonze. David Wan makes a plump Yamadori, and Sara Steward is an appropriately attractive Kate Pinkerton.
James Harp’s well-trained chorus is superb, both in the Act I wedding scene, which can be an operatic nightmare, and in the haunting Humming Chorus which concludes Act II.
Within the last year, I have seen three new and modern stagings of Madama Butterfly, including one for the Washington National Opera and one at the MET. This production is far and away the best. It will long be remembered.