Lyric Opera’s tepid “Butterfly” takes belated flight

Mon Feb 10, 2020 at 4:13 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Ana María Martínez and Brian Jagde star in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at Lyric Opera. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Sunday’s wintry weather made it an inviting proposition to  settle into a warm theater for Lyric Opera’s matinee of Madama Butterfly, Puccini’s expansive tale of the tragedy of the gentle geisha Cio-Cio-San.

Lyric’s current revival eventually took flight but only after a largely tepid first act that made one question the wisdom of slogging through a blizzard to get there.

In recent seasons Ana María Martinez has become Lyric Opera’s most relied-upon soprano for dramatic repertoire—even though her voice is unremarkable in quality and coloring, and often, as here, a size too small for the assigned role.

Martinez does bring a dramatic commitment and insight to her roles that can make up, in part, for the lack of vocal gleam. But on Sunday her tired performance as the doomed Cio-Cio San consistently weighed down the first half of the afternoon. She whiffed on nearly every top note in Butterfly’s entrance and the love duet, and her bland performance conveyed nothing of the girlish charm, humor or vulnerability that sets Pinkerton on fire.

Martinez appeared to be saving her energy—and her high notes—for after intermission when she was a much more animated and involved singer, both vocally and dramatically. She put across more of the geisha’s innocent charm in her interactions with Sharpless, delivered an admirable “Un bel di” and rose to the epic tragedy of the final scene with strength and dedication. Go figure.

The afternoon’s most consistent element was provided by Brian Jagde in a terrific performance as the heartless naval officer Pinkerton. Aptly dashing and loathsome, Jagde sang with flexibility, heroic tone and clarion top notes from his entrance. Dramatically, the gifted American tenor also etched a more rounded characterization of the skeevy Pinkerton than most—conveying the Yankee bravado in Act I but also bringing a genuine sense of contrition and self-disgust at the devastation his selfish acts have wrought upon the innocent Butterfly (reflected vocally in Jagde’s bittersweet, impassioned “Addio, fiorito asil).

This was as complete a Pinkerton as one could ever hope to hear both vocally and dramatically—notwithstanding the cretinous morons in the audience that can’t separate a singer from his role and who loudly booed Jagde at the curtain call. Do you people send birthday and wedding gifts to your favorite soap opera characters too?

Ricardo José Rivera took over the role of Sharpless Sunday for the ailing Anthony Clark Evans. If the second-year Ryan Center member’s portrayal of the American consul was a bit pallid due to the circumstances, Rivera brought a robust baritone to the proceedings, notably so in the Act III trio.

Deborah Nansteel was a wonderful Suzuki, singing with rich mezzo tone and touchingly sympathetic, reflecting every twist and turn of the plot in her movements and facial expressions. Rodell Rosel’s oily, vividly characterized Goro was a standout in the supporting cast. As Butterfly’s son, young actor Graham Macfarlane handled his silent role like a seasoned professional. 

Lyric’s elegant minimalist production, with revolving unit set and costumes by Christopher Oram, nicely reflects the Japanese milieu but it’s probably time for a new local staging of this Puccini perennial. 

Conductor Henrik Nánási made an undistinguished company debut in Lyric’s 2015 Le nozze di Figaro and was therefore promptly invited back for a return engagement. (Though in fairness that embarrassing show couldn’t have been saved if Mozart was in the pit.) The Hungarian’s conducting was no more illuminating in Puccini, with tempos either rushed or dragging, and innumerable opportunities for the orchestra to shine underplayed or wholly overlooked. 

Madama Butterfly runs through March 8. Lianna Haroutounian and Brandon Jovanovich sing the principal roles March 4 and 7.

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “Lyric Opera’s tepid “Butterfly” takes belated flight”

  1. Posted Feb 10, 2020 at 8:46 pm by Matt

    I attended the same performance and, as usual, I must say, your assessment is spot-on and totally in sync with my own.

  2. Posted Feb 12, 2020 at 9:44 am by GCMP

    What a difference a few days makes. At the dress rehearsal, Mr. Jagde began very well, but ran out of steam near the end of the Act I finale, and marked the rest of the show. Ms Martinez was very compelling, though she does have a light voice, and perhaps oversang the rehearsal leading to her fatigue at your performance. Anthony Clark Evans was superb, so it’s a pity he fell ill.

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