Opera Review | BLO’s ‘Madama Butterfly’ production soars despite flaws
Production decisions distract from performance of Puccini classic
Published: Thursday, November 8, 2012
Updated: Monday, November 12, 2012 19:11
Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” opens with Lieutenant Pinkerton of the American Navy is surveying the home he has just purchased for himself and his 15−year−old bride. Perched high atop a stony mountain in Japan, the building is small — Pinkerton himself calls it a “house of cards” — and it overlooks the sea.
In the Boston Lyric Opera’s season−opening production of the beloved tragedy, this house comes to life on the stage. The minimalistic set consists of a few wooden frames, which are covered by thin paper and painted with two blue lines to suggest a distant horizon. The structure distinctly resembles a cage, yet it appears fragile and beautiful, a reflection of the young woman who lives inside. As the primary sight that greets the audience, the scenery, designed by John Conklin, makes a superb foundation for the unfolding drama.
Classically viewed as a commentary on Western interference in the East, “Madama Butterfly” follows its title character on the two most important days of her young life — the day of her wedding and the day her husband returns after three years’ absence.
In the interim, the former geisha renounces Japanese customs and reshapes her identity to reflect “American culture” as best she can. In the name of love, Butterfly transforms herself and contributes to her own destruction.
Not every aspect of this production, directed by Lillian Groag, did justice to the potential of this complex and beautiful story. Odd choices in lighting meant that the entire stage was occasionally bathed in pink or purple hues. At one point, paper flowers the size of dinner plates were lowered to hang above the performers, hovering briefly before being hoisted up again. These eyebrow−raising moments, while not unforgivable errors, nevertheless distracted from the real substance of the work.
A much bigger problem for singers and the audience alike was the orchestra. While the ensemble was in wonderful form and provided an expert musical performance on many levels, the conductor, Andrew Bisantz, did not maintain dynamic control of the group. In several instances, the performers had to strain to be heard, and the music occasionally drowned out their singing entirely. For an art form that aims to establish the human voice as a focal point, these mishaps were a frustrating miscalculation.
Still, the singers were impressive when they were audible. The four leading roles, Pinkerton (Dinyar Vania), his wife Cio−Cio San (Yunah Lee), otherwise known as Madame Butterfly, her servant Suzuki (Kelley O’Connor) and their mutual friend Consul Sharpless (Weston Hurt) all had rich, full voices that complemented each other well. Of the foursome, Vania — here singing the tenor part — was the least compelling. He had the weakest voice of the group and lacked the acting skill necessary to show the depth of emotion that is crucial to his character.
Even when encumbered by her co−lead, however, Lee delivered a near flawless portrayal of Butterfly. Passionate and idealistic throughout, her acting never hit a false note; her stunning soprano was the crown jewel of the opera. While Butterfly should always be the star of this opera, Lee surpassed even these high expectations for her performance. In particular, a solo in which she sang completely unaccompanied stood out as the highlight of the evening and merited goosebumps.
When it comes to an opera as well known and loved as “Madama Butterfly,” expectations tend to run high. In this case, the result was a mixed bag: an opera that delivered brilliantly in some moments and disappointed or perplexed at others. However, this Boston Lyric Opera production gets the important things right, making it well worth a trip to the Shubert Theatre.
The original version of this article stated that Weston Hurt sang the tenor role in “Madama Butterfly.” The tenor role was actually sung by Dinyar Vania. The current version reflects this change.