Madama Butterfly

By Giacomo Puccini

Lyric Opera of Chicago
Conductor, Sir Andrew Davis
Stage Director, Vincent Liotta

A review by M. D. Ball of the performance on Dec. 20, 2008

It's grossly unfair to root one's entire impression of an opera in a misfired climax. After all, if a three-hour performance gleams for all but two minutes, even if those two minutes crown the story, the rest of it deserves a chance to take a bow.

I have no way of knowing whether it was a conscious decision on the part of Sir Andrew Davis, who conducted, or of Vincent Liotta, who directed, but this performance of Madama Butterfly by Lyric Opera reached its climax at Cio-Cio-San's farewell to Sorrow, while giving her subsequent suicide the feeling of a denouement. Consequently, the opera ended awkwardly. And the resulting inelegance wasn't attenuated by Frank Lopardo's disappointing flatness while his Pinkerton witnessed, with what should been shock, Butterfly plunging the dagger into herself. His reaction instead was incommensurately mild, even detached. My disappointment was all the more irritating for the persuasive and musically sumptuous way in which Lopardo and Patricia Racette, who sang Butterfly, established in the first act the mutual affection between their characters. In fact, the credibility of their emotional bond early on set up the tragedy of her suicide in the third act, but the clumsy climax ruined it.

Nevertheless, if we roll the tape back and start from the beginning, what leaps out is the fact that Racette was, quite rightly, the vocal center of this production. In resonance with the character, her voice followed Butterfly's emotional contours, even cutting a few of its own; she clearly understood that the music and drama of this opera fit together like lock and key. Her sound was clear, her pitch focused, and her vibrato luxurious. She had remarkable control of her instrument, passing smoothly from loud to soft, crisp to legato, and high to low. Furthermore, there was a complementarity between Racette's voice and that of Katharine Goeldner, who sang Suzuki; at no time was this more satisfying than in the closing section of the Flower Duet, where Puccini's cascading thirds came across with a warm sonority.

I applaud Racette for making me believe that Cio-Cio-San's apparent delusion was genuine. One could argue that a 15-year-old girl in this situation, with comparatively little life experience, would be crippled by her naivete. Like other divas who've sung this role, however, Racette didn't give her character an adolescent superficiality. But even more importantly, she didn't burden Cio-Cio-San with power-of-positive-thinking codswallop, which would have made her faith seem more like obstinacy, diminishing the sincerity both of Butterfly's devotion to Pinkerton and of her expectation that he'd return.

At this juncture, let me mention three of the other noteworthy performances. As Pinkerton, Lopardo hit the high notes with confidence and authority, bringing out probably as much as one could expect from this less-than-awesome role for a tenor in a Puccini opera. Goeldner gave us a Suzuki who, through gesture and voice, seemed to betray her prescience of Cio-Cio-San's eventual demise. Moreover, Goeldner delivered one of the most affective moments in the opera when she shoved Sorrow into the room with Butterfly in a futile attempt to dissuade her from killing herself. So strongly did Goeldner's body language convey both desperation and reluctance that for a very brief moment she became the protagonist in this tragic story. And Paul Corona, who sang the Bonze, Cio-Cio-San's infuriated priest-uncle, gave a bold and imposing characterization that made the family's collective renunciation of her plausibly and fatefully decisive.

This production was as much a treat for the eyes as for the ears. Clarke Dunham's set and Florence Klotz' costumes were utterly beautiful, capturing the exoticism that characterizes this opera.

Though Butterfly may lack the theatrical power of Tosca or the musical lushness of Bohème, it has a tenderness about it that dispels any air of pretentiousness. Although as an opera it does require the acceptance of some emotional extravagance, it doesn't require us to suspend the laws of emotional physics. Our two lovers are, after all, in love already when we meet them, and all the characters' actions, whether good or reprehensible, are believable, especially within their cultural and historical contexts. Butterfly wins our sympathy, as she did Puccini's, by gradually coming to represent the injustice and wastefulness of doing harm to an innocent.