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Subject: Glimmerglass BUTTERFLY (long)
From: Stephen Landesman <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Stephen Landesman <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Mon, 7 Jul 1997 21:49:52 -0400

text/plain (157 lines)

       Here's my initial impression (unedited print version) of
Glimmerglass Opera's
       opening production of the season; this was the Sunday (July 6) matinee
       (second) performance since I had to work the copy desk on opening
       night, July 3. (Opera-L observations in parentheses)

       The stats (in case anyone wants to keep up with comprimarii friends,
       former students, lovers, etc):

        Pinkerton           Rafael Rojas
        Goro                  Christopher Pfund
        Suzuki               Anita Krause
        Sharpless           Robert Perry
        Cio-Cio-San      Isabelle Kabatu
        Cousin               Yuri Hasegawa
        Mother               Monica Bellner
        Uncle Yakuside  Scott Bearden
        Aunt                   Amy Ellen Anderson
        Commissioner    Paul Soper
        Registrar             Mark Sullivan
        Bonze                 Steven Maricle
        Yamadori            Brian Moon
        Trouble               Jonathan Press
        Kate                    Lisa Angelina Griffith

        conductor           Stewart Robertson
        director               Mark Lamos
        sets                     Michael Yeargan
        costumes             Constance Hoffman
        lighting               Robert Wierzel
        titles                    Robert Pines
        chorus master      Bonnie Koestner

COOPERSTOWN - After seeing more than two dozen productions of "Madama
Butterfly," over the course of four decades,  both televised and live, in
this country and abroad, I have just witnessed what is arguably one of the
most compelling and beautiful performances of Puccini's 1904 tear-jerker
ever mounted.

Musically and theatrically, Mark Lamos' production here at Glimmerglass
Opera is a magnificent coup, strikingly faithful to the music and the
spirit of a work that until now I've never even liked very much (next to
say a well-done middle-period Verdi, late Donizetti or almost any Wagner
except Parsifal).

Coming as it does on the heels of Frederic Mitterand's widely praised film
version, which was nationally televised last week on PBS, this might seem
to be a fatuous claim. Save for several minor but ferociously (isn't that
the truth, Lea!) criticized directorial flaws, Mitterand's superbly
detailed production left little to the imagination in its authenticity of
setting and mostly Asian cast. And it was, for the most part, very capably
sung and acted.

But the Glimmerglass production lays bare the very heart and soul of
"Madama Butterfly" with a conspicuous minimum of detail, a wealth of
dramatic nuance and an abundance of rapturous singing. That the whole was
deeply affecting was evidenced by quite a few tears throughout Sunday's
audience at the end of each of the three acts, not just the heart-wrenching

Michael Yeargan's single, spacious set for this production is spare but
enormously effective: A large rice-paper and wood shoji extends the width
of the stage at the back and overlooks eight steps that also run the length
of the stage and descend steeply to a moderately raked surface. Behind it
as backdrop, an immense orb alternately glowing red or milky white against
a blue sky dictates both the mood and time of day. Here, Robert Wierzel's
lighting has never been more luminous and subtle.

Briefly, at the end of Act 2 ("Scuotti della fronda" was pretty light, but
what the hell, they're busy throwing petals around, too) and the beginning
of Act 3 (the birds were over-amped and a bit loud) an equally large shoji
occupies the front of the stage behind which Butterfly, her child and
Suzuki look out into the audience awaiting the arrival of Pinkerton's ship.

That's it, save for a few simple but telling props. A dozen small
rust-colored models of Western warships suspended briefly from the flies
during Act 1 neither add nor detract much from the whole. Constance
Hoffman's lovely costumes, on the other hand, are as finely detailed as the
set is not (Trouble's stars-and-stripes robe was over the top, however).

But despite this open expanse of physical setting, Lamos uses it all
deliciously and with consummate skill, endowing every scene with such
intimacy that each appears to be confined to one of a succession of small,
unseen rooms. Moreover, details frequently overlooked in many other
productions are given amplitude and real point here. When Cio-Cio-San's
uncle, Steven Maricle, truly frightening in his brief appearance as the
Bonze (great red kabuki mask, but no levitation tricks, thank you),
condemns her trip to a Christian mission, the wedding party reacts
immediately and with sustained horror. The effect on Butterfly is also
total. Rarely has this first small moment of bereavement been so

Again, before Butterfly bandages her son's eyes to keep him from seeing her
suicide, she turns the very act into a game by first playfully covering her
own eyes with the scarf.

And that death alone, in both manner and timing, is both more historically
accurate and dramatically chilling than any I've seen (Italian style, a
straight jab into the throat, Nakimura, just as Pinkerton starts to enter)
Much of that credit belongs to Belgian soprano Isabelle Kabatu (Japanese
mother, Zairean father, with an incredible sound, from
Montiginies-sur-Sambre: ever heard her, Margo?) who brings immense acting
ability, as well as a large and lovely voice to the title role. An initial,
mildly annoying steely vibrato did not diminish her brilliant and
passionate account of "Un bel di" in Act 1 and her duet with Pinkerton at
the end of the act.

Tenor Rafael Rojas was a traditional Pinkerton - neither the boor he's
become of late on the world's opera stages (thanks to Ricky Leech) nor a
Yankee sailor completely overwhelmed by love. Save for a brief vocal
tightness in the Act 1 drinking duet with Sharpless, flawlessly performed
with a resonant baritone by Robert Perry (who's singing Scarpia all over
the place next year, including, I think, here), Rojas' singing (but no
squillo) and acting were excellent and his Italian enunciation exceptional
(he's Mexican and looks a bit like a young Tucker).
His last-act "Addio fiorito assil," delivered with fine musicianship, was
marred only by a wooden, feet-firmly-planted stock tenor posture (also like
Tucker, sometimes). The voices of Kabatu and Rojas were also a good match,
meshing perfectly over the amplitude of the orchestra. Perry's finely
delineated awkwardness in the Act 2 letter scene was fine counterpoint to
his final "I-told-you-so" outburst of anger in the last act.

(Hey, and Kate P. wasn't a redhead, for once ... a nice voice, for as
little as we hear)

The well-sung (great voice!) Suzuki of mezzo Anita Krause was especially
moving in her Act 2 prayer, and throughout the performance Krause enhanced
the role with a believable range of emotions that embraced childish
delight, grief and resignation.

The marriage broker of Christopher Pfund was appropriately slithery, the
Yamadori (in princely robes here, not military uniform, and brought in at
the top by rickshaw) of Brian Moon elegant but informed with dignity and
restraint. (Trouble was borrowed from the Met and some of you may also have
seem him as Wozzeck's kid).

Music director Stewart Robertson appeared to conduct with an unaccustomed,
no-holds-barred passion, wringing every musical nuance and color from
Puccini's score. At times, the orchestral fortissimi threatened - but never
succeeded - in covering the voices.

This original language production is accompanied by the usual economical
English surtitles.

This is the most affecting and powerful "Butterfly" the average operagoer -
or casual theatergoer - is likely to see in a lifetime. Run, do not walk,
to your telephone, and secure a ticket while if can.

(Next installment: Iphigenie en Tauride)

Stephen G. Landesman
[log in to unmask]
Ithaca, NY

"Wann geht der naechste Schwann?"

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