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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
— Alan Mallach
McCarter Theater, 609-683-8000. $22 to $70. Also Sunday, July 11,
Thursday, July 15 , and Saturday, July 17.
retired director of Housing and Development for the City of Trenton.
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