Lyric Opera’s low-voltage “Butterfly” fails to take wing

Wed Oct 16, 2013 at 4:29 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Amanda Echalaz and James Valenti in the Lyric Opera production of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly." Photo: Dan Rest
Amanda Echalaz and James Valenti in the Lyric Opera production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” Photo: Dan Rest

One had high hopes for the Lyric Opera of Chicago revival of Madama Butterfly this season. With a new production and two singers with positive advance notices making their company debuts, it looked like a fresh new era for Puccini’s ever-popular romantic tear-jerker on North Wacker Drive.

Sadly, like Cio-Cio San’s dream of domestic happiness, it was not to be. With uneven singing, tepid musical direction and a dramatic engagement that sparked to life only late at the end of the evening, Tuesday’s mediocre Madama Butterfly marked yet another disappointing night of opera in Chicago.

The most successful element of the evening was the “new” (i.e., new to Chicago) production. Lyric has finally retired its effective yet antediluvian Harold Prince kabuki staging, and general director Anthony Freud has imported the 2010 production unveiled during his tenure at Houston Grand Opera. Christopher Oram’s lovely revolving unit set blends Minimalist cool with an elegant simplicity that reflects the Japanese milieu. A winding, steeply raked walkway—which must be nerve-wracking for the cast—and large wall screen evocatively suggest the Nagasaki harbor house. If only Lyric had cast this show more successfully, this new Butterfly production might have been all gain.

Amanda Echalaz has enjoyed some acclaim in the role of Cio-Cio San, the innocent teenage bride whose rejection by her caddish American husband leads to tragedy. Yet, frankly, for most of the opening-night performance it was hard to understand why. The soprano has the volume for the role but her hard tone shows little Italianate warmth. Her cool, blandly sung Un bel di was all on the surface, almost jarring in its complete lack of emotional depth and desperation.

Dramatically too, Echalaz was mostly a disappointment. The statutesque South African singer conveyed little of Cio-Cio San’s playful innocence or girlish charm in the opening scenes, qualities necessary to make the character’s ultimate tragedy register.

Echalaz’s performance belatedly came to life in the last part of Act 2, as Butterfly realizes that the husband who abandoned her has only returned to take their child away. She rose to the occasion in the harrowing final scene where she finally brought the requisite dramatic intensity as well as her best singing of the night, fully involved and expressively detailed. But Butterfly is not an opera where you can phone in two-thirds of the evening.

At least Echalaz has the notes, which is more than one could say for this show’s Pinkerton, James Valenti. As an actor, the tall America tenor was admirable, refreshingly avoiding the usual overdone frat-house swagger and making the repellent American naval officer into a more well-rounded character, even displaying a genuine concern for Butterfly’s distress when her relatives renounce her. (Valenti, however, has to find more to do physically than holding his long arms raised in front of his body. The cliched gesture, repeated ad infinitum, should have been reined in by stage director Louisa Muller.)

Vocally, Valenti’s performance was problematic, to say the least. The singer possesses a worthy middleweight tenor yet his top register is starkly weak and Valenti’s top notes were painfully strained, barely hit and unsustained.

Apart from Oram’s set, the one saving grace of the evening was Christopher Purves, who proved a Sharpless for the ages. The British baritone looks like a diplomat, and sang beautifully with a rich, burnished Italianate tone. Purves‘ understated yet nuanced acting etched a vivid portrait, conveying the American consul’s compassion for Butterfly, as well as his frustration and anger towards the heartless Pinkerton.

MaryAnn McCormick was a merely serviceable Suzuki. Laura Wilde proved a worthy Kate, Anthony Clark Evans an almost inaudible Yamadori, and David Govertsen a milquetoast and decidedly unintimidating Bonze. (Is anyone actually listening to these young singers at rehearsals?) David Cangelosi provided his usual quick-brush excellence as the odious marriage broker Goro.

Louisa Muller’s efficient stage direction was an improvement over her company debut last season in her park-and-bark La Boheme, though her blocking still had too many awkward and static moments.

Muller should get the living dangerously award for making the child actor who portrays “Sorrow,” Butterfly’s son, a full member of the ensemble. Most productions get the kid onstage and off as quickly as possible to minimize the potential for disaster. Here, the child is on stage with Butterfly and Suzuki with a great deal of action to do for nearly the whole of the long first part of Act 2. At 4 years old, the pint-sized Tye Oren Pauley showed himself an impressive trouper. He clearly comes to it naturally as the son of bass Wilbur Pauley and Lyric choreographer and ballet mistress August Tye.

Marco Armiliato’s ho-hum company debut in the pit was all of a piece with the evening. For an Italian conductor who has long been a Verdi and Puccini hand at the Met and other major houses, Armiliato’s streamlined traversal of Puccini’s magnificent score brought little punch to orchestral climaxes and the score’s roiling drama was in little evidence until the final scene.

Like Cio-Cio San waiting for her lover to return, local Puccini fans best hold off for the second cast in January and hope for a better day.

Madama Butterfly runs through October 30 and again from January 11-26. Patricia Racette and Stefano Secco will perform the roles of Cio-Cio San and Pinkerton in January.; 312-332-2244.

Posted in Performances

3 Responses to “Lyric Opera’s low-voltage “Butterfly” fails to take wing”

  1. Posted Oct 18, 2013 at 10:08 pm by Diana Eynon

    I totally agree with this review. I brought my young daughter to see today’s matinee (October 18th), and, alas, this was the worst performance of Madama Butterfly I’ve ever seen. I was very disappointed with Mr. Valenti’s Pinkerton; a very good-looking tenor, but could not sing the high notes, and in general had a very weak sound. Ms. Echalaz had a brassy, strangled voice, very unpleasant to listen to. After “Un bel di” we simply left.
    Astoundingly, in the program notes it says that these two singers will do the same roles at the Met… Sad, really sad…

  2. Posted Oct 28, 2013 at 9:28 pm by Donald Scamehorn

    I have to agree with this review. I attended the 2nd performance, and I do hope the staging is improved, or even rethought. Moment after moment passed without much emotional depth. Little advantage is taken of the many opportunities to display the East/West dissonance; efficient movement, efficient singing, not much more (I thought the orchestral playing was wonderful). Directors such as Frank Corsaro & Jean-Pierre Ponnelle have demonstrated in their individual ways, just how much power is in Puccini’s opera, but this show seems content to simply play the notes.

  3. Posted Nov 02, 2013 at 4:24 pm by John

    I mostly agree with the review except for the stage design. As a long time Lyric patron I was profoundly disappointed by this production. The performers had poor chemistry, and quite uneven delivery that was riddled with small mistakes. The performers were clearly overwhelmed by the lyric’s large stage and the minimalist set and choreography is quite frankly boring and cheap which puts even more pressure on the performers to deliver. Having so many “debut” performers at least in part contributed to a very non-Lyric show that was a borderline insult to those of us that invest significant sums for an evening out.

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