Two main facets of Giacomo Puccini's compositional genius were his astounding melodic invention and his ability to write effectively for the stage. His mature operas have become staples of the repertoire, and audiences seem never to tire of them. Of these masterworks, the 1904 "Madama Butterfly," based on David Belasco's drama, is the longest and most developed, as well as being Puccini's own, personal favorite. The story of a Japanese maiden seduced and abandoned by an American sailor never fails to wring tears from viewers, and was the basis for both films and a Broadway musical.
Though hardly the most inspired choice, "Madama Butterfly" was definitely a sure-fire bet with which to open Boston's new opera season. And, in an effort to secure its success, Boston Lyric Opera is offering a traditional, straightforward production of the opera's standard, revised version. The costumes and sets are simple and attractive. As the seasons and times of the day are most important to the opera's storyline, stage lighting is crucial; and the lighting designs of Robert Wierzel are atmospheric and beautifully synchronized to the stage action. The performances are being conducted by Andrew Bisantz, whose interpretation favors broad tempi which are expansive in the lyrical moments, but lag at times. From the back of the main floor, the orchestra sounds thin and undersized. This is either an acoustical issue, or the conductor's attempt to scale down his musicians in deference to his lead singers.
Having already sung the role of Cio-Cio-San several times with other companies, soprano Yunah Lee obviously knows how the music should go. All the details are in place, the crescendos, diminuendos and pianissimos. Hers is a lovely, limpid voice as well. Yet it is diminutive, and often unsatisfying in the big dramatic moments. Butterfly may be a fragile Japanese teenager, but Puccini wrote powerful, full-blooded, Verismo music for her. Although Ms. Lee sings most of the notes on pitch, looks great in the role, and is appropriately waiflike, one longs for a 300-pound Montserrat Caballe who could produce some serious sound.
Like Yunah Lee, tenor Dinyar Vania is making his BLO debut on this occasion, appearing as the fickle Lt. Pinkerton. His voice has a masculine timbre, but lacks focus and true ring in the middle register, which results in his being barely audible at moments. The high notes are iffy, some are resonant, others pinched. Yet, he manages to make an attractive stage presence in a role that is ultimately rather unattractive.
As Sharpless, Weston Hurt is less engaging on stage. However, in pure vocal terms, he is the standout of the cast. His baritone has great warmth and color, and his vocal production is even and secure. Equally talented, mezzo-soprano Kelly O’Connor, as Butterfly’s loyal servant, Suzuki, garnered a huge ovation on Friday evening, opening night.
There are four more opportunities to catch this well-staged production of Puccini’s lushly gorgeous opera: Nov. 4, 7, 9 & 11. Considering contemporary operatic performing standards, Boston Lyric’s Opera’s "Madama Butterfly" proves a quite respectable reading.
For more information visit the Boston Lyric Opera website.