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Amanda Echalaz as Butterfly [Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago]
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Madama Butterfly, Chicago

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s current new production of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, an effort shared with Houston Grand Opera and the Grand Théâtre de Genève, tends to emphasize emotional involvements against a backdrop of spare sets.

Madama Butterfly, Chicago

A review by Salvatore Calomino

Above: Amanda Echalaz as Butterfly

Photos by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago


This exposure of the individual characters, their hopes and conflicts, requires that the performers communicate musically in the midst of shifting narrative turns and a gamut of anguished feelings. The original production was directed by Michael Grandage with sets and costumes by Christopher Oram; for Chicago the production is directed by Louisa Muller. Cio-Cio-San / Butterfly and Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton are sung by Amanda Echalaz and James Valenti, both making house debuts. Butterfly’s attendant Suzuki is performed by Maryann McCormick and the American Consul Sharpless by Christopher Purves, the latter also appearing here for the first time. The Lyric Opera Orchestra is led by Marco Armiliato, who makes his Chicago Lyric conducting debut with these performances.

At the start of Act One the Japanese marriage broker Goro, sung by David Cangelosi, and Pinkerton discuss business matters relating to the house which the protagonist has rented for his current relationship with Cio-Cio-San. When describing both the household members in the service of the bride, and guests who will attend the ceremony with Pinkerton, Cangelosi’s Goro is masterfully acted and sung with obsequious gestures and with a good sense of idiomatic delivery. Mr. Valenti’s Pinkerton seems appropriately distracted when hearing Goro’s recitation of domestic details. Valenti’s facial expression remained unchanged during this scene and the following exchange with Sharpless who enters in a breathless rush to witness on site Pinkerton’s plans. Valenti’s lyrical spirit emerges when he sings “Dovunque al mondo’ (“Everywhere in the world”) in his soliloquy to Sharpless on the wandering and risk-taking Yankee sailor. It is surely this attempt to stay in character, seeking pleasure until he settles someday with a proper “sposa americana,” that explains Valenti’s grinning stage demeanor and understated vocal line. At times both he and Purves’s Sharpless were unfortunately challenged in their vocal projection by overly vigorous orchestral volume.

As Cio-Cio-San enters with her companions, the excitedness of the young women is appreciated by their host. Despite her own demure behavior vis-à-vis Pinkerton this Butterfly is skilled at giving orders to her retinue of serving companions. Ms. Echalaz sings with secure pitch, at first investing her line with a noticeable amount of vibrato as a means to expressing her mix of ardor and nervous expectation. Once her character feels more comfortable in this conjugal setting, to which she assigns blind faith, Echalaz varies the expression of vocal color. She describes her few treasured possessions with a nonchalant tone for the pot of rouge, yet her description of the “cosa sacra” (“sacred possession”) — the knife of her father’s suicide — is pronounced with pure, unwavering focus. Once the Bonze, uncle of Cio-Cio-San and a Buddhist priest, enters and curses her resolve, the ultimate societal and personal isolation of the young woman has begun. As the Bonze, David Govertsen delivered an appropriately menacing and lyrically convincing impression, while also competing with an unyielding orchestral force. The departure of authorities and extended family leave the protagonists alone for perhaps their most celebrated expressive music in Puccini’s score. Valenti and Echalaz sang this duet touchingly from his rising vocal line on “Viene la sera” (“The night approaches”) to Butterfly’s naïve pronouncements “Ah dolce notte! quante stelle!” (“Oh, beautiful night! So many stars!”). At times during this first and the following acts the voices seemed muffled as though the set, constructed of graduated panels, were absorbing some of the performers’ vocal projection.

MADAMA_BUTTERFLY_DBR_0550.gifAmanda Echalaz as Butterfly and James Valenti as Pinkerton

Act Two of Madama Butterfly begins as an extended duet for Cio-Cio-San and Suzuki, the latter despairing over the failure of Pinkerton to return within three years. Ms. McCormick’s Suzuki featured some of the most expressive dramatic singing of this performance, as she released rich, dark pitches in her warnings of their precarious financial household. In reply Cio-Cio-San’s famous aria “Un bel di” (“One fine day”), assuring her faith in Pinkerton’s return, was sung with careful attention to top notes alternating with lines sung piano for their introspective emphasis. Sharpless interrupts this intimate scene and tries repeatedly to communicate the contents of Pinkerton’s letter. Purves’s Counsul showed the ideal mix of anguish and frustration in both acting and singing as he tries to broach the topic with Butterfly. Once the cannon-shot is sounded, Butterfly is again lost in her world of determined faith: she and her child, with Suzuki joining in support, scatter flower petals to signal their welcome of Pinkerton.

The “Humming Chorus” performed between Acts Two and Three was subtly audible as the central structure of the stage revolved. In the final scenes Echalaz’s descent into renunciation of her life and child was as complete as her earlier trajectory of hope. Pinkerton’s brief appearance and aria, “Addio, fiorito asil,” (“Farewell, flowery refuge”) was here sung by Valenti with the ability to integrate this vocal piece into the dramatic flow. His brief lyrical outburst simply added in this production to the tragedy as Madam Butterfly proceeds to the decision that she realizes is now inevitable.

Salvatore Calomino

Click here for cast and production information.

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