Thursday, November 8, 2012

Madama Butterfly takes flight at BLO

The heart-stoppingly gorgeous first act chorus - photos by Eric Antoniou

Puccini's Madama Butterfly is one of the most oft-performed operas in the world - probably because it's among the most beautiful ever written.  From the title character's arrival in her new home in Act I, surrounded by a chorus of well-wishers (above) to the ravishing duet with her new "husband" that brings down the curtain, Puccini operates at the absolute peak of his powers; and his second act, though slightly more variable, is still studded with languidly stunning arias, including one of the most recognizable in the world, the haunting "Un bel di."

Yet surprisingly, Butterfly famously faltered on its first outing in 1904, and Puccini tinkered with it repeatedly (there are five versions!) before finally "getting it right" - if he did get it right, that is - in 1907.  Even before the composer had finished his labors, however, the opera had caught on around the world, and its popularity has never flagged since. It's a staple at the Met, we saw it in Boston just a few years ago, and now Boston Lyric Opera is presenting the final "standard version" in a simple, but sumptuous production at the Schubert (the last performances are Friday and Sunday, so hurry).

Now up front, I'll admit that BLO, and director Lillian Groag, haven't quite triumphed over Puccini's still-awkward structure (call it two-and-a-half acts) - and there are a few balance problems, and the scenic design feels mannered here and there.  Still, it's all held together by a towering central performance that no Puccini fan will want to miss: Yunah Lee simply is Cio-Cio-San, the eponymous "Madame Butterfly" who is faithful (to the suicidal end) to Pinkerton, the American cad who "marries" but then deserts her.

Yunah Lee and Dinyar Vania as Butterfly and Pinkerton.
Lee is blessed with a rich, flexible lyrical soprano, and a subtle sense of vocal taste; she never forces Cio-Cio-San's famous pathos on you.  Instead she inhabits the role with unusual dramatic force - she has played it more than once before (see Youtube below), and it shows in the concentrated detail of her interpretation; I've rarely seen an operatic performance as deeply and thoughtfully acted as this one.  Lee is simply as great an actress as she is a singer.

I'm afraid I can't shower the same praise on Dinyar Vania's turn as Pinkerton, however; this young tenor clearly hadn't a clue how to identify with the callow anti-hero he was playing.  And alas, his voice sounded a bit strained at its top - although to be fair, it bloomed gorgeously in its middle range, so that his duets with Lee in the first act were just as transporting as they should be.  In musical terms these scenes built so beautifully, in fact, that they left you a little weak.

There was fine singing elsewhere, too - Kelley O'Connor, whom we've heard in these parts before, brought her signature dusky tone, as well as a fund of heartfelt sympathy, to bear on the role of Suzuki, Butterfly's faithful (and worldly) servant.  There was also a solid vocal turn from local bass-made-good David Cushing as the uncle who denounces Butterfly's turn to the West.

But perhaps the finest singing of the night came from baritone Weston Hurt, who opted for subdued dramatic restraint as Sharpless, Pinkerton's hapless American friend, but whose confidently powerful vocal lines easily cut through even the richest of Puccini's textures.

Those textures were, to be honest, a bit overwhelming at times at the Schubert.  Conductor Andrew Bisantz led the BLO orchestra with passionate finesse - but often at slightly too high a volume; thus there were balance problems when a few of the supporting singers (though not the leads) were at the back of John Conklin's cavernous set.

That set, btw, sometimes enchanted - but also sometimes puzzled.  Conklin often cuts his naturalism with abstract strokes, and here he seemed to take a reference to the sliding doors of Japanese architecture as the cue to float all manner of design ideas on and off the BLO stage.   This aligned well, actually, with the static, nearly dream-like atmosphere of the opera - little actually "happens" in Madama Butterfly (which may be why Conklin had the newlyweds' little bungalow literally float over the stage until the curtain fell on the first act).

I likewise found the Rothko-like panels of color that sometimes descended from the flies intriguing (Rothko, after all, committed suicide too), as well as the blue "horizon line" that bisected the set's paneled "frame"; but a few other flourishes, like the bouquets that briefly drifted over the action, felt forced.  Meanwhile director Groag interlarded the action with her own abstract ideas; at the opening, for instance, we saw Butterfly's father commit seppuku in a Noh-style mask.  This was quite effective, but other gestures were less persuasive - and in the end, Conklin and Groag didn't seem to be on the same page, and at any rate their separate stylizations were a world away from what most of the singers were doing.

Still - do Lee, O'Connor, and Hurt make up for a slightly fudged concept?  In a word, yes - in spades.  At its best, BLO does Puccini proud; indeed, at some particularly ravishing musical moments, you'll wish this Madama Butterfly could float on forever.

Yunah Lee in a previous performance as Butterfly.

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