Thursday, January 16, 2014

Superb Singing Makes for a Grand(age) 'Madama Butterfly' -- Chicago Opera Review

Opera Review

Madama Butterfly
by Giocomo Puccini
Original production direction by Michael Grandage
Revival direction by Louisa Muller
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Thru January 26

I think I like opera more the less I go.

About a decade ago, already an aficionado of musical theater, I decided to explore opera and eventually became a full season subscriber to the Lyric Opera of Chicago for 5 seasons.

While I saw, and enjoyed, many magnificent works and productions, I never came to “feel” opera on an emotional level like I do with the best of Broadway, rock 'n roll and jazz. But getting to 8 operas a season was also a bit much, both in terms of effort and experience, and I think it may have been somewhat counterproductive in acclimating to the operatic art form.

In more recent years, I've gone to an opera or two each season, typically picking more dilettante-friendly operas by the likes of Puccini, Mozart, Verdi and Richard Strauss, plus the Lyric's lavish stagings of musicals like Show Boat and Oklahoma.

On Tuesday night, for the first time in the Lyric's 2013-14 season, I went to such an opera: Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Although this was somewhat chosen for me—my friend Paolo bought tickets for us to go as a birthday present—and I had seen it twice before at the Lyric, my memory is such that it felt new and exciting.

And entirely lovely, if not exactly uplifting. But then, most operas—which often tend to be melodramatic—do not end on a happy note.

I am not enough of an opera buff to provide much of a critical assessment, and this one still didn't quite get me in the gut, but I enjoyed everything I saw and heard.

While even from the upper balcony, it was hard to perceive Patricia Racette as a teenage Japanese girl—i.e. the titular Butterfly—her singing was exquisite (flawless as far as I could tell, and per Paolo, better than the star who sang the role during the production's October run at Lyric), as was Stefano Secco as Pinkerton, the U.S. Navy officer who marries and then desserts her as she yearns for him with an unwavering yen.

Although the story is rather simple—and the basis for Broadway's Miss Saigon—I appreciate Madama Butterfly as being an ideal opera for novices, not just due to Giocomo Puccini's lush score, but because unlike other operas I've seen, the libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica isn't cluttered or complicated by too many characters.

The current Lyric production is based on one originally staged by noted British theatrical director MichaelGrandage for the Houston Grand Opera, and employs rather minimalistic scenery. Though devoid of the splendiferous spectacle of more lavish productions—even of Madama Butterfly, which I can't specifically recall but which Paolo scenically prefers—I liked how this staging echoed the sense of simplicity and serenity found in Japanese art.

At a couple of junctures, the pacing got a bit too slow for my tastes, and given the relatively small cast of characters, Madama Butterfly doesn't have many of the vibrant choral pieces that I particularly enjoy. Still a handful of collective songs were powerfully rousing and Racette's take on Butterfly's aria near the beginning of Act II—"Un Bel Di" = one beautiful day—was wondrous, along with much else.

As I intimated above, this shouldn't be mistaken for a scholarly or expert review, but it is a recommendation.

Whether you're an avowed opera lover, a complete beginner or, like me, a dabbler, this rendition of Madama Butterfly should delight your senses and further your appreciation of the art form.

And especially as there were more empty balcony seats than I ever recall at the Civic Opera House, especially for a Puccini opera, the Lyric needs to expand—and lower the average age—of its audience base.

So if you have ever thought it might be nice to take in an opera, there's no need to—à la Butterfly—continue to wait for your ship to come in. The 4 remaining performances of Madama Butterfly should provide the perfect opportunity.  

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