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Music to Die For

Racism, sexism, heartbrfeak and a timeless musical score

The best show in town happens to be an opera. Puccini's Madama Butterfly is just the first offering of the Florida Grand Opera's 2004-2005 season, a varied feast that promises other mega hits such as Lucia di Lammermoor and The Magic Flute, as well as a tasty rare treat in January: Benjamin Britten and W. H. Auden's unclassifiable musical Paul Bunyan. For all that, though, it will be tough to match the freshness and impact of the company's revival of one of the world's favorite operas. This Madama Butterfly works, and it works beautifully.

The story is as simple as it is brutal. Premiered in Milan in 1904, Madama Butterfly is a tale of racism, sexism, and heartbreak, of one woman's blind faith and one man's careless cruelty, of a clash of irreconcilable cultures.

A vulnerable Japanese girl named Cio-Cio San has grown up in unspeakable poverty and shame since the death of her father, a disgraced government official. She is forced into prostitution and, by the time the opera begins, she is still only fifteen but has lived and seen more than most people endure in a lifetime. Along comes Lt. B.F. Pinkerton, an American naval officer stationed in Nagasaki, who wants to marry her and take her away from all this. The catch is that this is only an arranged, "temporary" marriage for the ugly American. All he really wants is a nubile geisha in his bed for as long as he's in town, and he's willing to pay for it.

Cio-Cio San, nicknamed Madama Butterfly, is happy to meet him in Act One -- moving in with Pinkerton surely is an improvement on her life so far. But she goes further, fatally, by both falling in love with the American and actually willing herself to believe that he loves her in return. He does not, of course. And the tragedy that follows is inevitable.

It is also gorgeous. True, the sentimental melodrama of Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica's libretto has proved hardy, inspiring other pieces as varied as the hit play M. Butterfly and the even bigger hit musical Miss Saigon. But it is Puccini's music that has made Madama Butterfly timeless. A hundred years on -- and the Florida Grand Opera production is nicely timed for the work's centennial -- Madama Butterfly remains not only one of opera's greatest hits but also one of the most profoundly moving and satisfying stage works of all time. The drama, of course, is in the music; that is the genius of Puccini. And from a purely musical standpoint, the Florida Grand Opera's Madama Butterfly is often stunning.

The lion's share of the praise must go to Stewart Robertson, the company's music director, for an interpretation that brings surprise to a familiar score while sacrificing none of its emotional impact. Robertson may not be a born Puccinian, but he is an intelligent, sensitive artist with genuine insights into Puccini's opera. From the score's opening passages, he drew deliciously clear articulation from the strings, not rushing tempos but rather letting the music breathe naturally. The sensual ebb and flow of his phrasing never followed any metronome markings but rather echoed the wild patterns of a beating heart. Orchestral portamentos (fluidly sliding from one note to the next), may be rare today but surely were a virtue in Puccini's lifetime, and they came as a revelation in Act Two and especially Act Three. The Humming Chorus alone, a ravishing feat of balanced textures and sublime rhythms, would be reason enough to experience this Madama Butterfly.

Eva Jenis, in the title role, was not quite on that level. She has an attractive if not especially powerful voice, with interesting colors in the middle and worrisome narrowing on top. The subtleties of portamento -- or the rudiments of legato, for that matter -- were nowhere to be heard. Her private asides to Pinkerton were throwaways, and her two big arias were not the highlights they should have been on opening night. She eschewed traditional interpolations in her entrance, which is fine. But she also didn't make much of the high B-flat in "Un bel di" or of the long musical arc of the demanding final scene. Still, she did not really get in the way of the score. And she was surrounded by talent, not just from the orchestra pit.

Tenor Andrew Richards is a real find in this tenor-starved age. His horny cad of a Pinkerton could use a little polish dramatically, but the young American's singing of this fiendish role was winning and splendid. Dead-on attacks, easy passage between registers, a thrilling bloom at the top of the voice, heroic vocal colors but also true spinto flexibility -- all this in addition to bona-fide good looks make Richards a singular singer.

Melina Pineda, last season's Szulamit and still a voice in progress, was a harmless cipher as Suzuki. James Westman, on the other hand, was both touching and complex as Sharpless, the American consul. Douglas Perry was everything one might wish in a Goro the pimp. As Prince Yamadori, the suitor who might save Butterfly if only she will let herself stop loving Pinkerton, Timothy Kuhn made a major impression in what is usually a minor role. Douglas Kinney Frost's Florida Grand Opera Chorus was luminous as a too-brief sunrise of hope at the end of Act Two.

Music aside, the production seems not always comfortably poised between the passionate naturalism of Italian tradition and a Cliffs Notes nod toward the rituals of kabuki. Michael Yeargan's San Francisco Opera sets make for a few awkward clashes with the libretto but nevertheless consistently offer some arresting stage pictures. Ron Daniels's stage direction, too, works best from afar; his production seems more effectively blocked than actually directed. Nothing is made of the intimacy of the whispered confidences before the wedding in Act One, less of Cio-Cio San's unsettling resignation when Sharpless asks her what she will do if Pinkerton does not return. Under Daniels's direction, Jenis on opening night threw away an answer that other sopranos have made devastating: "Two things I might do: Go back to entertaining men; or better, die." Cio-Cio San's ritual suicide is a throat-slashing in this version, which might have worked better if Goro hadn't signaled a coming hara-kiri by gesture with the same sword in Act One. No matter. Puccini's music can sweep aside details, and it is in very good hands here.

Madama Butterfly on CD

There is no easier way to explain the genius of Puccini than simply to play one of the classic recordings of Madama Butterfly and see the composer's magic work on anyone from an opera newcomer to the most jaded old fan. The score has fared well in the recording studio, with many of history's greatest sopranos leaving their mark on this masterpiece of Italian verismo. Top honors must go to Renata Scotto's two recordings, both of which capture performances that will leave no listener unmoved. Her first (on Angel-EMI) finds Scotto in marginally fresher voice superbly matched by Carlo Bergonzi's Pinkerton and conducted by Sir John Barbirolli. The second (Sony Classical) boasts Placido Domingo's definitive Pinkerton, red-hot conducting from Lorin Maazel, and a devastating interpretation by Scotto that makes this one of the great opera recordings of all time.

Not far behind is Maria Callas's classic 1955 Madama Butterfly (Angel-EMI), conducted by Herbert Von Karajan. No one before or since has surpassed the late Greek-American diva's emotional impact in this role. Anna Moffo became an overnight sensation singing Cio-Cio San at age eighteen, and her studio recording (RCA) goes a long way to explain the all the hype. Victoria de los Angeles (twice on Angel-EMI) balanced assurance and pathos in unforgettable performances. Perhaps the most beautifully sung recordings, note by note, are those of Renata Tebaldi (Decca), though she gets fierce competition on that score from Mirella Freni; the usually gentle Italian soprano considered the role too heavy for her and never sang Madama Butterfly on stage. But she sang it for the studio microphones -- opposite Luciano Pavarotti, conducted by Karajan -- and the Decca recording remains a dazzling musical tribute to the splendors of Puccini.


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