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Performances

Yulia Lysenko as Cio-Cio-san, Matthew White as Pinkerton (photo by Jessi Franko Designs LLC)
05 Jul 2018

Madama Butterfly at the Princeton Festival

The Princeton Festival brings a run of three high-quality opera performances to town each summer, alternating between a modern opera and a traditional warhorse. John Adams’ Nixon in China has been announced for next summer. So this year Princeton got Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, for which the Festival assembled an impressive cast and delivered a polished performance.

Madama Butterfly at the Princeton Festival

A review by Andrew Moravcsik

Above: Yulia Lysenko as Cio-Cio-san, Matthew White as Pinkerton [Photo by Jessi Franko Designs LLC]

 

The title role of Cho-Cho-San, the 15-year old geisha whose naïve love for an American sailor ends in suicide, belongs among the most challenging in the Italian repertoire. Any singer who dares to tackle this role requires the stamina to remain on stage nearly continuously through almost three hours, singing with a full range of dynamics, emotions, and textual nuances. Puccini’s heroine is driven from child-like innocence in Act I, to pious determination in Act II, and to wrenching anguish in Act III.

Yulia Lysenko, a Ukrainian-trained soprano but now living in the US, approached the role with vocal virtues common among the great mid-20 th century exponents of this role: technical security, perfect intonation, and a credibly child-like timbre. Her characterization was heart-felt, believable and consistent—if sometimes a bit unsubtle and not always ideally alert to the text. As essentially lyric singers of this type often do, she struggled a bit with weightier utterances that lie lower in her voice.

Matthew White, a recent competition-winning tenor from Virginia still finishing up at the Academy of Vocal Arts, brought to the role a small and well-formed young voice. His penetrating and slightly metallic tone, fine intonation and secure high notes matched Lysenko. Yet his is most decidedly not (yet?) the type of instrument appropriate to the role of Pinkerton. Musically, even the reduced orchestra sometimes buried him and, dramatically, he struggled to convey Pinkerton’s self-serving, cowardly, arrogant and yet irrepressibly outgoing character. Even in the days when lighter tenors like Beniamino Gigli, Giuseppe di Stefano and Cesare Valletti customarily sang this role—something rarer today—they did so with greater warmth and ebullience.

The smaller characters consistently excelled. Rising young American baritone Paul la Rosa, a Juilliard graduate with an extraordinary resume of operatic and concert performances, sang Sharpless with style, full resonance and true stage presence—save for some thinner top G’s. Janara Kellerman brought a resounding mezzo voice, clear diction and convincing passion to the role of Suzuki. Her Puccini sounds like Verdi and Wagner, in the best sense of the comparison. Wei Wu, a native of China climbing making his way up in the US opera world, sang the Bonze, a small gem of a Puccini role, with strength and directness. Anthony Webb showed a typical character tenor to best advantage while hamming his way through the role of the marriage broker Goro. Chad Armstrong and Kathleen Monson were solid as the suitor Prince Yamadori and Kate Pinkerton. The latter, who is largely silent while on stage, looked the part of the ice queen.

Festival Director Richard Tang Yuk led a reduced orchestra in a technically assured performance. The conducting—while it could have been lighter, quicker and more varied, especially in Act I—was as good overall as has ever been heard at the Princeton Festival.

Prima la musica! Opera has always been—and should remain—mostly about the music. Yet opera is a multi-media art form, and stage directors have recently gained prominence. Though Puccini sentimentalized the plot of Butterfuly in many respects, it offers more opportunities to probe beneath the surface than La Bohême, Tosca, or Turandot. Some productions return to the harsher realism of the short story and the play on which the libretto is based. Others invoke classical Japanese drama to stylize the action, as does the MET’s current Butterfly. At the very least, some accentuate the theme of cultural clash by presenting Pinkerton as stereotypically American in his bluff but callous manner, and Cho-Cho-San’s suicide as a return to the dignity and pride of Japan’s deeper civilization.

Princeton’s production team chose none of these options, hewing instead to the lowest common denominator. The production suggested that this was all just a misunderstanding: a romance gone bad between two rather confused young people. In this interpretation, Pinkerton seemed a bit dim-witted: his constantly perplexed persona clashed with the jovially impatient and authoritative naval officer of the libretto. Cho-Cho-San also seemed clueless from beginning (where it makes some sense) to end (where it does not). Most objectionable was the opera’s final moment, when she fell dying into Pinkerton’s arms and tried to kiss him. After three years of suffering, had she really learned nothing?

Sets and costumes accentuated the superficial mood. While competent enough, were the cute little house of wood and paper, a decorative garden bridge, and garish pink sunsets borrowed from a production of Mikado? And does it take a professional dramaturg to note something amiss when Cho-Cho-San approaches her wedding tatami singing about her garment of “lily white” yet is dressed in sparkling light blue chiffon? (Thus spoiling a lovely triple-entendre in Italian that is encapsulates the entire plot: the world Butterfly uses, “candido,” means not just pure white, but also “clean” and “honest.”) Surely, a bit of serious thought about what is in the libretto could have fixed all this—without costing a dollar more.

With all its strengths and weaknesses, the final performance of Madama Butterfly played to a nearly full auditorium, which responded with a standing ovation.

Andrew Moravcsik

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