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This review by Alan Mallach was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on July 7,

1999. All rights reserved.

Review: `Madama Butterfly’

Over years of attending, I have come to think of Opera

Festival of New Jersey, while consistently professional, as a company

more at home in the relatively detached intricacies of Mozart, Rossini,

or Benjamin Britten, than in the more unbuttoned emotional climate

of the Italian repertory, epitomized by Puccini’s masterpiece, "Madama

Butterfly." For this reason, I had misgivings about the company’s

new production of "Butterfly" which opened at McCarter on

Saturday, June 25. At the end of the first act, my misgivings were

still intact. Beautifully and meticulously staged and sung, both the

wedding scene and the love duet between Butterfly and Pinkerton seemed

distanced and mannered, full of lovely moments, but somehow missing

the emotional heart of the music.

My misgivings fell away during the second act, however, as Maryanne

Telese in the title role came into her own with her portrayal of Cio-Cio

San, or `Butterfly,’ now abandoned by the man she loves. No longer

the fragile, almost doll-like figure she portrayed in the first act,

she has become a passionate woman desperately holding on to her dream

of Pinkerton’s return.

Telese’s voice is not a conventionally beautiful one, but it is a

richly expressive instrument. In her superb rendition of "Un bel

di," in which Butterfly imagines Pinkerton’s return in rich detail

from the moment his ship sails into Nagasaki harbor, she captured

the full intensity of her character’s hopes and dreams, as well as

the reality on which they will founder. Although I have heard "Un

bel di" often — indeed so often that I have come to think

of it almost dismissively — as Telese sang it I found myself drawn

completely into the emotion of the scene, more deeply than I would

have believed possible. From that moment to the end, as the story

moves inexorably toward its tragic close, the spell of Puccini’s magic

permeated the hall, and I, too, was in its sway.

Far more than most popular operas, the success of "Madama Butterfly"

hinges on the title role. Telese, who sang Butterfly for the 300th

time on opening night, wholly inhabits this part, and fully deserved

the ovation she received at the end. Such a strong Butterfly, particularly

one with Telese’s intensity and passion, can lead one mistakenly to

undervalue the contributions of the other singers.

Among these singers, Jane Bunnell as Butterfly’s maid, Suzuki, stood

out. Although Suzuki sings few extended solo passages, she is a constant

presence in the second and third acts, her loyalty and common sense

bringing Butterfly’s hopeless passion into bold relief. Without a

strong Suzuki, no Butterfly can fully achieve the potential of her

role. Bunnell has a rich mezzo-soprano, and her singing and acting

contributed greatly to the power of Telese’s characterization.

Perry Ward, in the role of Sharpless, was sonorous and dignified,

the very figure of a decent and honorable man, while Jay Hunter Morris

was an ardent and ringing, but vocally strained, Pinkerton. The Opera

Festival orchestra played beautifully for conductor Michael Ching.

The single set, Butterfly’s house overlooking Nagasaki harbor, is

beautifully done, and the staging is meticulous and inventive. Two

aspects of the staging, however, bothered me. I found the evocation

of what might be call `quaint old Japan’ overdone. The Japan of "Madama

Butterfly," which is set at the beginning of the 20th century,

is a country well along in its adoption of Western customs, not an

exotic tribe discovered only weeks before. For Yamadori’s entrance

to resemble the procession of a medieval daimyo or lord, to

pick one example, when Puccini’s own correspondence indicates that

Yamadori, as well as other figures such as the Commissioner and even

Goro, should wear European clothing rather than traditional Japanese

garb, is anachronistic and distorts the sense of the opera.

My second concern is the manner in which the opera ends. Puccini’s

directions, reflected in the program book synopsis, make clear that

Butterfly has died as Pinkerton comes up the hill calling her name.

The heroine’s solitary death and Pinkerton’s late arrival are deeply

invested with dramatic meaning. In this production, however, Pinkerton

takes Butterfly in his arms, as they exchange one last loving gaze

before she dies. Clearly, that is a more conventional ending; something

of which Puccini, who had Mimi die in much the same way in "La

Boheme," was undoubtedly well aware. Director Linda Brovsy’s emendation

undermines the power of this final moment.

While these concerns are not trivial, the power and passion of Puccini’s

opera carry the day, and result in a production well worth seeing.

For those who have never seen "Madama Butterfly," Opera Festival’s

production is a worthy introduction to a major masterwork, while even

those familiar with the opera should relish the opportunity to experience

Telese’s inspired characterization of one of operadom’s most memorable

heroines.

— Alan Mallach

Madama Butterfly, Opera Festival of New Jersey,

McCarter Theater, 609-683-8000. $22 to $70. Also Sunday, July 11,

Thursday, July 15 , and Saturday, July 17.

Alan Mallach is a pianist, composer, music writer, and

retired director of Housing and Development for the City of Trenton.


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