Puccini: Madama Butterfly

Gran Teatre del Liceu

Liceu, Barcelona, 5 April 2013 3.5 stars

Madama ButterflyHaving seen productions of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly that often verge on the overtly political, it was refreshing to see the Leiser and Caurier production at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, which essentially focuses on and fleshes out the dramatic tension inherent in the dénouement of the opera.

Embedded anti-American sentiment is a common theme of modern productions, and this one only touched on it: the flag waving Sorrow as his mother kills herself was particularly effective. Overall, however, the general thrust towards realistically portraying the stereotype of Japanese culture in the nineteenth century was done successfully. The strongest aspect of the production is probably its lack of any seriously offensive gestures or content: defined by its own terms, it is in essence and in particular a crowd-pleaser, a vehicle for great singers.

The Japanese style house (with stylized backdrops of the outside world, revealed as screens within five large windows/doors rise and lower) are the frame for the action; yet I couldn’t help but feel that this house exists in multiple locations. Or, perhaps this feature implies that the house exists in some kind of dreamscape? This could be too gratuitous an interpretation but it was almost as though Butterfly--with the very clever poses and rigid motions by Moshe Leiser and Patrice Caurier--was the quintessential butterfly trapped in a cage, helpless to break free from the bonds of her sacrifices, confined by her own emotions and a victim to no one.

Hui He was a breathtaking Cio-Cio-San. The role is difficult because it demands intense stamina; a flair for lyricism and the theatrical; an almost unforgivable range of vocal color; and a consummate confidence that must be continually presented as demure subtlety. He sang the role with most of these most of the time, no easy task, and at moments--“Un bel di vedremo” especially--displayed a stunning amount of commitment that filled the ornate hall with a dark tone full of color. The movements given to her, especially at the end, where a bit much; undoubtedly meant to evoke her fight against her tragic fate, they unfortunately read simply as sloppy.

Roberto Alagna gave an inspired performance as Pinkerton. The misguided American is not particularly suited to his bold, lyrical voice and perhaps it is the role’s brevity that enables him to sing it in major houses. Nevertheless, Alanga still has verve, style, and that je ne sais quoi French attitude that makes for bold, thrilling performances. Although his acting will probably forever need work, it’s a bit late in his career to be forcing new habits.

Jossie Pérez as Suzuki was perhaps more secondary than she should have been; in ENO’s production of Buttefly, for example, Suzuki is better defined by her actions and tasks, not just by the vocal demands of the role. Here, it seemed like she was consistently trying to leave the stage rather than truly commit to the role. Still, Pérez inhabited her character expertly, but one wished for slightly less metallic edge in some of her more beautiful phrases.

Giovanni Meoni was a quite capable Sharpless. His full, honey-like bass-baritone is delicous for the ears. Dramatically he made a good balance to Alagna, and you could hear him better more often than the supertenor. The short duet between He and Pérez was ironically taken slightly too fast, but this is probably the fault of Josè Miguel Pèrez-Sierra, who, in an understandable attempt to fulfill the modern expectation for expansive Puccini, took the whole opera far too slow. It certainly was not just me that noticed this: the singers’ muscle memories were struggling to sing ever-so-slightly slower throughout most of the performance, but especially in Acts I and II. What was perhaps even more frustrating was the seemingly flippant attitude Pèrez-Sierra took whenever Alagna sang. The conductor seemed to have no problem taking his phrases slightly faster than any other singer. Supertenor strikes again.

The production is definitely worth seeing if you find yourself in Spain; come July a new cast will be taking over that includes Patricia Racette and Stefano Secco. Of course, as mentinoed, the Liceu has found a fantastic vehicle for star-singers.

By Michael Migliore

Photos: A. Bofill