Lyric Opera

Unlike wine, shallow or muddled productions will not improve with age–even if many superstar directors seem to think they will. So it’s with a sense of comparative relief that we can contemplate the current revival of Harold Prince’s production of Madama Butterfly at Lyric Opera. Seen twice before by Lyric audiences and televised by PBS, this production is like an old friend.

Giacomo Puccini had an affinity for ladies in distress. In fact 20 years ago, before the term “politically correct” was invented, some half-witted essayist determined that Puccini’s propensity for putting his female leads to death marked him as a harbinger of fascism in Italy. Clearly Puccini was not interested in suffering per se but in the operatic possibilities of the poignant stories he chose for his indefatigable librettists, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica.

Cio-Cio-San’s marriage to B.F. Pinkerton of the U.S. Navy is a joke to the callow lieutenant, but a matter of complete seriousness to the 15-year-old geisha, who’s known as Butterfly. She abandons the ways of her people for him, and is in turn abandoned by her people. When Pinkerton finally returns with his Anglo wife, Cio-Cio-San commits suicide rather than enter the life of genteel prostitution that seems her only alternative.

Surely none of Puccini’s heroines presents a more sympathetic figure than “poor little Butterfly.” Tosca and Minnie may attract our sympathy, but they have more than a little bit of steel in them. Butterfly is as resolute in her suicide as Tosca, but she possesses a gentle and trusting nature that’s foreign to the Italian diva. In fact, Puccini’s Butterfly is so delicate and tender that all of the other characters in this opera come off as coarse, unfinished, and unsympathetic–dramatically, the whole show belongs to her. The cruel, vulgar Pinkerton, the ineffectual Sharpless, and the loyal Suzuki draw life only from their link with the little geisha.

Any Japanese setting almost invariably calls forth from the designer’s stock such cliches as cherry blossoms, gardens, and light-walled pavilions. But for this opera they’re entirely appropriate; anything else would be at war with the underlying concept of the melodrama. The Lyric production–with sets by Clarke Dunham, costumes by Florence Klotz, and staging by Broadway’s star director Hal Prince–tries to add novelty to this old war-horse by incorporating some elements of Kabuki. The ubiquitous Ko-Ken, Kabuki stagehands, clad in black and padding about as they do their chores, are the most visible element. The red sash drawn from Cio-Cio-San as she dies is emblematic of her life’s blood, and the grotesque costumes of the Bonze and Prince Yamadori also underscore the Kabuki tradition. The revolving set enables the designer to present all of the scenic elements without any distracting scene changes; the slow rotation of the set is even made an integral part of Butterfly’s nightlong vigil for Pinkerton in act two.

By the second revival of a production, directors customarily have very little interest in their aging offspring and leave the rerealization to others. True to this tradition, Prince wasn’t visible on opening night, though he was reportedly in town for some of the rehearsals. Taking his place was the able Vincent Liotta.

Catherine Malfitano, in the role of the doomed Cio-Cio-San, delivered the best performance I’ve heard her give. Anna Tomowa-Sintow’s 1985 version of this role had its vocal merits, but no one could ever mistake her for a 15-year-old. The slight Malfitano managed to produce a clean and sure vocal interpretation while producing a much more believable teenage geisha and a heart-wrenching death scene.

Earlier this season Malfitano was the best feature of the Lyric’s rather indifferent Antony and Cleopatra. One of the problems of that production was the relative vocal weakness of her Antony. In this production she’s much better paired with Richard Leech as Pinkerton. He gave a most pleasing rendition of the role, his clear and youthful tenor being appropriate for the young lieutenant and strong enough to fill the house. He also played Pinkerton in a rather loutish fashion, which is fair, since Pinkerton is the consummate lout. Richard Stilwell’s dry baritone is getting drier with age, but he handled the well-meaning but ineffective Sharpless with deeper dramatic feeling than during his last go-round with this production.

One of the drawbacks of a revival–for the principals at least–is the possibility for invidious comparisons with the previous incarnations. Young Paola Romano delivered a decent performance as the ever loyal Suzuki, but I found myself missing the more self-assured and dramatically forceful Elena Zilio, who sang the role in 1985. Comprimario tenor Florindo Andreolli, who has been a fixture and sentimental favorite at the Lyric for many years, was unfortunately unable to re-create his almost traditional role of Goro because of a stroke. Richard Markley, rising from the ranks of the chorus for the occasion, slipped comfortably into the role of the marriage broker; he seemed like a somewhat larger edition of the diminutive, energetic Andreolli. Stefan Szkafarowsky as the Bonze and Philip Zawisza as Prince Yamadori managed to deliver their lines with sufficient gravity despite their overdone costuming. Poor Beverly Thiele, who was only seen as Octavia in Antony and Cleopatra, landed the penitential and ungratifying role of Kate Pinkerton–perhaps Lyric will let us hear her sing someday. From the pit Daniele Gatti led the orchestra in an acceptable but not terribly energetic reading of Puccini’s tearjerker.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Romano.