“Butterfly” Wows the Crowds at Lyric

“Madama Butterfly” opened at the Lyric Opera of Chicago Tuesday, Oct. 15, and it is a production the likes of which I have never seen.

And like most opera fans, I rarely miss a chance to see Giacomo Puccini’s magnificent telling of this tragic tale.

The curtain rises on the stage of the Civic Opera House, revealing a stunning sunrise of pink and blue, bracketed by slender trees in silhouette. Designed byChristopher Oram, the newly imagined scenery, with screens and an arched path, continued to delight all through the three-hour production.

It is 1904, Theodore Roosevelt is president and Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, USN, feels free to express an extraordinary degree of American arrogance. Pinkerton rents a house in Nagasaki, which comes with servants and a geisha wife, the 15-year-old Butterfly, whose gentle charm has smitten him. American tenor James Valenti, in his Lyric Opera debut, is straight from Central Casting–handsome, tall and dashing in his summer whites.

Butterfly is South African soprano Amanda Echalaz, also in her Lyric debut. Her luminous voice dominates the stage and often overshadows Valenti’s tenor. In the first act Echalaz is a not quite fragile enough for this child-bride, but she embodies the strong, hopeful woman Butterfly has become by the second act.

There is a problem with this visually scrumptious production–it is static. When Butterfly and Pinkerton are alone on their wedding night, they make little use of the space around them. They stand apart most of the time, she turning away occasionally to display shyness. At this point the surroundings are perfection, with golden lamplights illuminating the stage.

Make no mistake, the music is sublime. Nobody wrote for the human voice like Puccini, and the Lyric Opera Orchestra, conducted by Italian Marco Armiliato in his Lyric debut, gives the score a pictorial performance, vividly colored, each nuance a clue to what lies ahead.

The cast is first-rate. British baritone Christopher Purves, another talent new to Lyric, plays American Consul Sharpless. His voice is excellent, and his acting ability exceptional, as he warns the young Naval officer that his casual attitude toward marriage to Butterfly is dangerous. Butterfly’s loyal servant Suzuki is American mezzo-soprano MaryAnn McCormick, who seems to absorb all the sufferings of her mistress.

Perennial Lyric favorite American tenor David Cangelosi plays Goro, the Japanese marriage/real estate broker. He has taken that role in the last three Lyric productions of this opera and his voice and presentation continue to be impressive. Recent alum of the Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center bass-baritone David Govertsen is the Bonze, who is disturbed by Butterfly’s conversion to Christianity and violently disrupts her wedding. First-year Ryan Opera Center member Anthony Clark Evansportrays Prince Yamadori, who wants to marry Butterfly. He has a marvelous baritone voice. His fellow center member Laura Wilde, soprano, is Kate Pinkerton, a small role that she dispatches well. Butterfly’s little blond son is Tye Owen Pauley, 4, the child of Lyric’s ballet mistress/choreographer August Tye and bass Hudson Shad of Lyric’s male vocal group. Pauley is an adorable lad and very well behaved.

The Lyric Chorus displays its versatility and flexibility in the marriage scene, when their angry voices reproach Butterfly for abandoning her traditions. Their unison howl as they learn of her conversion is chilling, while their Humming Chorus is ethereal.

This production is a feast for the eyes and ears. Whatever is lacking in the stage direction is more than compensated for by the searing emotions that swirl around the characters. The curtain descends on a tragic tableaux–Butterfly crumpled in death, Pinkerton frozen in horror and gazing at his fair-haired son, sitting apart, playing with his toys.
Echalaz, Valenti and Pauley appear through October 30. “Madama Butterly” returns January 11 through 26 with Patrician Racette and Stefano Secco as Butterfly and Pinkerton, and Kayla McGovern as Butterfly’s child. Performances take place at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago. For tickets and information, call 312-332-2244 or visit Lyric Opera’s website.