James Valenti, Amanda Echalaz in Lyric Operas Madama Butterfly
  • Dan Rest
  • James Valenti, Amanda Echalaz in Lyric Opera’s Madama Butterfly

This week saw the opening of both Theo Ubique’s Master Class—the Terrence McNally play about Maria Callas—and Lyric Opera’s Madama Butterfly.

I saw them a day apart, which made for some interesting reverberations.

Master Class, at No Exit Cafe, is such an intimate production that you might want to avoid the front-row seats. Callas, played by the admirable Kelli Harrington, leaves the singing to her three ostensible students, each of whom delivers a high-volume vocal in pretty close proximity to your eardrums.

As delineated by McNally, Callas was driven and bitter (and also bitingly funny). She had willed herself into international stardom on the strength of a distinctive—if imperfect—voice, paired with an intensely emotional delivery.

She made a famous recording of Puccini’s Butterfly, but only played the part on stage once. That production, which ran for three performances, was here, at the fledgling Chicago Lyric Opera, in 1955.

The critics didn’t love it.

And a notorious Callas photo was snapped at the conclusion of its short run: just off the stage, still in her kimono and full makeup, she’d been handed a court summons by a guy who couldn’t get out of earshot fast enough. The image of her furious response hit newspapers world-wide and solidified her bitchy-diva reputation.

All this was fresh in my mind when Amanda Echalaz, another soprano with a powerful, distinctive voice that can turn a hard edge, made her entrance at Lyric as Butterfly.

Like Callas (after Callas had undergone the diet that probably destroyed her voice), Echalaz is tall, slender, and sharp-featured—not the stereotypically petite Butterfly one might imagine (but opera seldom provides). It took all of a moment to adjust to that—and just a little longer to fall under the spell of her occasionally jarring, compellingly silvery voice.

Echalaz is South African; she hasn’t sung much yet in the States, and this is her Lyric Opera debut. Tenor James Valenti, also making his Lyric debut, is her costar, perfectly cast as Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, the dashing American naval officer who marries Butterfly without any intention of staying with her. American opportunism and exploitation personified, he’s irresistible. And baritone Christopher Purves, a convincing actor with a beautiful voice, is wonderful as the consul, Sharpless.

The highly stylized set is proof that less really can be more. Japan, as imagined by Europe, is conjured up by a screen, the silhouette of a few pine trees, and the sweeping curve of an inclined path—delicate and evocative as an image on a teacup.

This production, which premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 2010, was originally directed by Michael Grandage; it’s conducted here by Marco Armiliato. Performances continue through the end of October, and it returns in January, but with Patricia Racette and Stefano Secco in the lead roles.

That month, Echalaz is taking her Cio-Cio-San to the Met. Like Callas, she came to Chicago first.