A subtle Butterfly at Lyric
Civic Opera House
01/11/2014 - & January 14, 17, 20, 23, 26, 2014
Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly
Patricia Racette (Cio-Cio-San), Stefano Secco (Pinkerton), Christopher Purves (Sharpless), MaryAnn McCormick (Suzuki), David Canglosi (Goro), Richard Ollarsaba (Commissioner), Will Liverman (Registrar), David Govertson (Bonze), Anthony Clark Evans (Yamadori), Laura Wilde (Kate Pinkerton)
Lyric Opera Chorus, Michael Black (chorus master), Lyric Opera Orchestra, Marco Armiliato (conductor)
Michael Grandage (director), Louisa Muller (revival director), Christopher Oram (set and costume designer), Neil Austin (lighting designer)
S. Secco & P. Racette (© Dan Rest)
You might wonder how it would be possible to stage a subtle, understated Madama Butterfly in general, let alone in a notoriously cavernous house like the Civic. Lyric Opera of Chicago’s new production of one of Puccini’s most popular works shows just how it can be done. With this second cast of a staging new to Lyric this season, the company has achieved an effective balance of refined vocalism and intimate theater in a production that should be useful to the company for many years in the future.
A Lyric veteran on whom the company knows it can rely, Patricia Racette (who sang the title role at Lyric in 2008-2009) delivered a performance moving in ways you might not expect from her. We know her voice can fill almost any house; we know she has the squillo and heft to cut through dense orchestration. But as Cio-Cio San, Racette uses her instrument with nuance and subtlety. When you expected a powerful crescendo from her, she maintained a medium dynamic; when you expected sharp melodrama from her, she poignantly sat, letting the emotions speak for her. Even her “Un bel dì” reflected this, as she chose an unassuming but moving messa di voce on the climactic final “lo aspetto,” eschewing the standard belting that would have surely brought down the house. Racette’s Butterfly has become, if anything, more thoughtful.
Surrounding the soprano was a mostly solid cast, if a bit lackluster. Despite a solid theatrical performance, Stefano Secco underwhelmed vocally as Pinkerton in his house debut, his voice proving too small for the Civic and occasionally bordering on inaudibility. As Sharpless, however, Christopher Purves brought elegance and grace to this Butterfly, his clear and grounded baritone easily being heard in ensembles. MaryAnn McCormick’s Suzuki faithfully stood by her Butterfly, but showed little vocally to distinguish herself from the cast. Of the smaller roles, Will Liverman as the registrar deserves an honorable mention, the current Ryan Center member singing his short role with gravitas and elegance.
While not exactly minimalist, stage designer Christopher Oram’s production borders on austere, a single curved incline forming the crux of the opera’s action. The sets are functional enough. Instead of ornate designs with exotic touches, the spartan scenery pushes the focus at all times on to the main characters. There are no set changes, per se; rather, panels slide back and forth, ambient lighting is used to set the mood—but the single set in front of which the story unfolds remains essentially the same from beginning to end. It worked well, except during the Humming Chorus when the aforementioned incline inexplicably spins around in an attempt to mimic the passing of time as Butterfly awaits Pinkerton’s return. During one of the most moving sections of Puccini’s score, the creaking of the rotating stage nearly drowned out the offstage chorus, with little dramatic effect earned in exchange. Did director Michael Grandage think that the audience couldn’t be trusted to watch patiently as Butterfly waited?
Madama Butterfly has proven an important staple in Lyric’s repertoire. At a time when opera companies must deal with ever-dwindling budgets, and indeed, some companies have permanently closed down, Lyric has maintained a balanced budget for more than a decade. It’s often easy, then, to spot a Butterfly or Bohème in Lyric’s season and write it off as a cash cow. That would be a mistake with this production. It’s more than just a seat-filler; it strips the action down to the essentials, returns the story to the intricacies between the characters, and lets the vocalists shine. For a production surely to feature again in future seasons at Lyric, this Butterfly’s artistic merits are right up there with its practical benefits.