Of all the tragic operas, Madama Butterfly is perhaps the most universally heart-rending. This is not only because the core of the story is so common (a young woman seduced and abandoned by a cynical man), but also because of its chronological vicinity to us: of all the ‘classic’ repertoire, this opera is only little more than a century old and, for all the exoticism of the Japanese setting and costumes, it feels very modern.
Madama Butterfly, like Bohème and Tosca but possibly even more, beautifully conveys in music the enchantment of being in love and for two and a half hours casts an intoxicating spell on the audience. But, in order for this spell to happen, you need the magic potion that makes opera: the right voices with the right interpretation, the latter being particularly important in this work.
Lyric Opera’s production was one of high standard. The set design was very simple and not changing between the three acts, more a hint to the Japanese location, but the direction and the singing were overall so strong that made you forget the lack of any special effect. By contrast the costumes were quite lavish and more than compensated for this. Ultimately, such simplicity of staging only reminds us of the essence of opera, which is the voice. The orchestra and chorus, respectively under conductor John Rigby and chorus director Richard McGrath did a very fine job.
Korean soprano Hye-Youn Lee performance in the title role was simply outstanding, both from a vocal and from an acting point of view, displaying great psychological finesse and a beautiful voice. She was an utterly credible Madama Butterfly and you could sense her previous experience in the role. She also smartly escaped the risk, almost intrinsic to the role, of appearing too histrionic. Surprisingly, the aria Un bel dì vedremo felt a bit rushed, not completely in tune with the actual words of the aria which is, instead, all about “the long wait”, the anticipation of Pinkerton’s arrival and the emotional turmoil, the impatience of seeing again the long gone husband and the artificial hiding, partly a ‘game’ (“un po’ per celia”) and partly a defense against the strong emotion (“e un po’ per non morir”); I could not feel all this complexity and internal battle in the singing, nor the sudden shift of mood in the aria was vocally well underlined. Although this is the most famous aria in the opera, Hye-Youn Lee performance was, for the rest, so exceptionally good that this glitch did not spoil the magic she was absolutely able to create on stage from start to finish.
Julian Hubbard has a fine tenor voice which, although not quite matching in weight that of Hye-Youn Lee, sustained Pinkerton’s role really well throughout the evening. More chances to play the unfaithful American husband will no doubt grant him a higher level of identification with the part, which could possibly do with slightly less emphatic gestures, together with a higher dose of passion in the aria “Bimba dagli occhi pieni di malia”. Mezzo-soprano Sarah Richmond was a nice Suzuki, significantly contributing to the dramatic success of the poignant duet with Madama Butterfly at the start of the second act. Again here, less would have been more in terms of gestures to convey sorrow, while from a vocal point of view the audience might have perceived the lower notes as too rarified.
Lucia Lucas (as Sharpless) was absolutely impressive, arguably one of the most powerful and beautiful baritone voices you could hear. Her acting ability was equally good, and after listening to her you are just left with the eagerness of hearing her in bigger roles with juicy arias, roles that will give her the chance that she highly deserves to shine. Her voice will probably be best used in Verdi’s grave baritone roles, and in that regard the upcoming Verdi Gala at the National Concert Hall on May 16 should prove unmissable just for her presence.
Among the minor roles, that of David Howes’ Prince Yamadori stood out, and it would be interesting to hear him again in new productions.