By Lawrence Budmen

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) was the ultimate master of operatic music theater. His genius for inspired melodies was wedded to an unerring sense of music drama. (Only Richard Strauss had a comparable mastery of opera as "lyric theater.") Puccini imbued his tragic heroines with a larger than life lyricism that continues to mesmerize audiences after more than a century. The composer may have created his most deeply felt soprano role in Cio-Cio-San, the ill fated geisha of "Madama Butterfly." Sopranos of divergent voice types have embraced this memorable role. Such vastly different artists as Toti Del Monte, Licia Albanese, Eleanor Steber, Maria Callas, Renata Tebaldi, Leontyne Price, and Renata Scotto have made Cio-Cio-San a signature role. (It was through Tebaldi's vocally opulent, strongly projected singing on a Bell Telephone Hour telecast nearly five decades ago that this writer fell under Puccini's magical spell.) Although it lacks a heroine on that legendary level, Florida Grand Opera's current production of "Madama Butterfly" (seen on November 23, 2004) serves Puccini's musico-dramatic canvas well. 

Puccini saw the play "Madame Butterfly" by the famous American dramatist David Belasco in London in 1900 (when he supervised the Covent Garden premiere of "Tosca."). Although he could not understand a word of English, the composer was so deeply moved that he was in tears at the play's conclusion. With Belasco's enthusiastic support, Puccini (with the assistance of librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica) transformed a turn of the century melodrama into one of the most lyrically potent, dramatically compelling works in the operatic canon. Some years before "Madame Butterfly" (after the British premiere of "Manon Lescaut") George Bernard Shaw proclaimed that Puccini "would inherit the mantle of Maestro Verdi." With the surging lyrical melodies and bright, colorful orchestration of "Madama Butterfly" Puccini more than fulfilled this prophecy. 

The FGO production was brilliantly creative. Instead of the usual picture postcard Nagasaki, Michael Yeargan's sets (originally designed for the San Francisco Opera) were admirably austere and inventive. A main curtain had the subtly clear lines of a Japanese lithograph. A series of sliding panels delineated the home in Nagasaki and opened to reveal the sky and the sea. Traditional Japanese costumes were effective without detracting from the music and drama. Stephen Strawbridge's brilliant lighting greatly enhanced the mise-en-scene. The harsh winter and the radiance of spring were all subtly evoked (always in perfect parallel to the musical ambience). The blinding sunlight of morning in Nagasaki at the beginning of the third act was striking. Except in the second act where the characters were placed too widely across the stage during crucial confrontation scenes, Ron Daniels directed a fluid production with many deftly characterized scenes. The sequence in Act 1 when Cio-Cio-San's relatives denounce her for forsaking her Shinto faith was particularly effective. 

The Slovakian soprano Eva Jenis (who made her American debut in this production) was clearly an experienced Cio-Cio-San. She made one believe in the heroine's tragedy and sacrifice. Her final scene was deeply moving. While opera requires a certain suspension of reality, the fact remains that Jenis is a mature singer and hardly looks like a fifteen year old (which is Cio-Cio-San's age at the beginning of the opera). More seriously, her bright voice shows serious signs of wear. In her radiant entrance scene, Jenis phrased Puccini's rapturous phrases beautifully but her high notes were often shrill, her pitch problematical. Her "Un bel di" was remarkably effective. Sheer deeply felt intensity of dramatic declamation more than compensated for any vocal blemishes. The "Flower Duet" failed to soar due to Jenis's erratic high register and the soft core singing of mezzo-soprano Melina Pineda as Suzuki. Even though the orchestra overpowered her at times, Jenis's death scene was powerful and deeply touching. Clearly here was a soprano who really felt the role and knew how to communicate it despite vocal problems. 

Tenor Andrew Richards revealed that elusive "star quality" as Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton. Pinkerton is the ultimate embodiment of the ugly American. The youthful Richards played the role with appropriately brash arrogance and swagger. Moreover this tenor is really sexy. While he did not have much chemistry with Ms. Jenis, Richards dominated the first act and his brief scene in Act 3. Most importantly, Richards can sing. His clear, ringing Italianate tenor voice is exciting. It is effortlessly produced with strong, peeling high notes. Richards phrased with lyricism and keen musicianship. His tone was sweetly honeyed; his dulcet pianissimos as exciting as his full throated perorations. (Not since the young Jerry Hadley has this role been played with such vitality and sung with such fervor.) With engagements at the opera houses of Hamburg, Dresden, Frankfurt, and Berlin, Richards is headed for a major international career. He is the authentic article - a tenor with a vibrant, robust voice! Move over Richard Leech - a new tenor hunk has arrived! 

James Westman revealed a light, warm baritone as the American Consul Sharpless. His scene with Ms. Jenis in Act 2 was appropriately poignant. Pineda's Suzuki was rather laid back. Douglass Perry is a veteran Goro. He sang with clarity and kept the marriage broker from becoming a totally unsympathetic character. As Yamadori Timothy Kuhn was a standout in the supporting cast. He has a fine baritone voice and real stage presence. 

Stewart Robertson conducted a lively performance. Both the lyrical sweep and exotic color of Puccini's music were well served. He was particularly effective in evoking the darkly tragic cast of the opera's final scenes. Robertson made the Humming Chorus a haunting, mesmerizing moment of genius that is so quintessentially Puccini. The much improved orchestra played with tonal richness and precision. Puccini played with Italianate fervor! 

"Madama Butterfly" remains one of the most moving operas ever penned. This FGO production was one of the company's best recent offerings. Despite a less than perfect performance of the title role, Puccini's lyric tragedy often soared!


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