I had the pleasure of attending the Teatro Lirico D'Europa MADAMA BUTTERFLY last evening at The McCallum Theatre and was once again swept away in Puccini's exquisite score and timeless love story. The vocalists were stellar; every one - everything else in the production was a little sub-par. Even though the singers were truly thrilling, their characters were cold and distant and it was difficult to find any empathy for them - except what was inherent in the score itself. But, even with its deficits, it was a wonderful way to spend an evening in the theatre.
Meliangee Perez's Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly) was vocally exquisite. She was definitively too old to play the young, fifteen-year-old geisha in both the maturity of her voice and her physique. Never once did she come off as the fragile Butterfly described repeatedly in the score and was never fully able to elicit true empathy for the tragedy of her circumstances. Antonio Pita's Pinkerton was also a pleasure to listen to, but his emotional range was limited and wooden. Their was no real connection between the lovers and thus no real emotional connection between characters and audience. The characters also came off as "middle-aged" and more cerebral than feeling.
Giorgio Lalov's direction was pedestrian and rather clumsy. This is one of the most passionate and heart-wrenching librettos in Opera and yet it was neither passionate nor heart-wrenching. It was all overplayed in a melodramatic style that, at times, was comic when it was meant to be dramatic. The blocking often seemed unnatural and stilted. And there were a couple of really "off the mark" choices made by Lalov. Pinkerton and Butterfly are only to have been apart for three years when she produces her son. The son was played by an obviously ten or eleven year old boy, almost as tall as Butterfly herself. When Pinkerton's American wife arrives with him in Act Three, they are there to take away Butterfly and Pinkerton's son - the stakes are dire. And yet Lalov has Kate blissfully waiting in the garden smelling the cherry blossoms with apparent joy - a contradiction to what she would be feeling under the circumstances. His direction not only did not support the piece, it may have been its emotional downfall.
The sets, the costumes, the lighting effects and the stage props were all of a community college level. The door on the Shouji kept getting stuck when Suzuki attempted to close it gingerly and at one point tea was served on a bed tray found at Walmart, totally out of period. My expectations were higher.
The supporting cast were equally tremendous vocalists. Dobromir Momekov's Sharpless was a solid anchor in the cast and Viara Zhelezova's Suzuki was more emotionally layered than her mistress, Butterfly. The trio between Pinkerton, Sharpless and Suzuki was one of the evening's finer moments. Perez's "Un Bel Di" aria was also a standout and was the only mid-show moment to receive spontaneous applause. Sadly, both Butterfly's suicide and Pinkerton's discovery of her body were cold, melodramatic and anti-climatic. The opera was performed with a full orchestra (bravo) and without any microphone amplification - which was, for the most part a big plus --- however, more often than not, the male vocalists were drowned out by the orchestra, especially in dramatic moments when both the singers and orchestra were at full throttle. The female vocalists all seemed to rise above the orchestra for most of the show.
Hooray for The McCallum for including Opera in their wonderfully eclectic season. Up next - the legendary Barbara Cook and then the incomparable Linda Eder. For more information or tickets visit www.mccallumtheatre.com.