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Racette shines in Lyric’s Butterfly

Lyric Opera
12/13/2008 -  and December 13, 17, 20, January 6, 9, 12, 15, 18, 21, 24, 29
Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly
Patricia Racette (Cio-Cio-San/Madama Butterfly), Frank Lopardo (Pinkerton), David Cangelosi (Goro), Katharine Goeldner (Suzuki), James Westman (Sharpless), Craig Irvin (The Imperial Commissioner), Daniel Billings (The Official Registrar), Paul Coronoa (The Bonze), Corey Crider (Prince Yamadori), India Rose Renteria (Sorrow, Butterfly’s child), Amber Wagner (Kate Pinkerton)
Lyric Opera of Chicago Orchestra and Chorus, Donald Nally (chorus master), Sir Andrew Davis (conductor)
Vincent Liotta (stage director), Ken Billington (original lighting designer), Christine Binder (current lighting designer), Florenz Kotz (costume designer), Clarke Dunham (set designer)

Patricia Racette (Madama Butterfly) (© Dan Rest)

Lyric Opera of Chicago’s lush production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly seems to have no foreseeable retirement. Despite the fact that the company has employed the sets for more than twenty years, its traditional staging remains lush, eye-appealing, and timeless. Nothing, however, could draw anyone’s attention away from Patricia Racette’s portrayal of Butterfly on opening night.

Upon her entrance, the New Hampshire-born soprano showed that she had both the largest voice and the greatest control of anyone else in the cast. She displayed a perfect balance between the soaring lines of the first act duet and the nervousness and timidity felt by the fifteen year old Butterfly. Racette’s “Un bel dì” was sung marvelously and with unbridled emotion. Her dramatic rendition of the aria suggested that this Butterfly was not as idealistic as others have been—she seemed to already know that she was no longer important to Pinkerton, as if she sang not only to restore confidence in her maid Suzuki (played by Katharine Goeldner), but also in herself.

Racette’s best moment of the night, however, was during “Che tua madre,” when she delicately rocked her child (played by India Rose Renteria) while forcefully recounting the life to which she refuses to return. One of the most difficult aspects in portraying Butterfly lies not in feeling the vast emotional extremes of the character, but in having to convey them at certain times in moderation and others in full force. Patricia Racette shows in every minute on stage that she not only knows this, but lives it as Butterfly.

The rest of the cast was up to par, if not as spectacular as Racette. Frank Lopardo’s Pinkerton was reliable, but without the excitement in his voice present in years before. Lopardo was oddly cautious during the Act I love duet, and indeed during some sections he was nearly inaudible. Yet while his voice no longer blooms in his top register, he still navigated most of the vocal demands of the role with ease. His “Addio, fiorito asil” showed true pathos, and he made Pinkerton’s often hard to believe recognition of the wrongs he had done to Butterfly seem surprisingly credible.

The two other principals sang competently. Baritone James Westman was consistent as Sharpless; his voice didn’t overpower the rest of the cast, but he sang with plenty of warmth and fine legato. The role of Suzuki is somewhat thankless—Butterfly’s maid makes her first entrance from a hidden room and her biggest moment comes in a duet. Mezzo Katharine Goeldner made the most of it however, showing a full, warm voice and playing a fine foil to Butterfly’s emotional restraint in both acts.

Stage director Vincent Liotta makes some perplexing choices in this production. Several actors dressed in black stand around the stage and seem to have no real purpose other than occasionally darting in and out of the action in bizarre ways. A revolving platform which is undoubtedly motorized sits under the stage and presents different views of the inside of Butterfly and Pinkerton’s house at key moments; for some reason, Liotta has the aforementioned actors feign as if they are the ones performing the rotation. Another key example: after Butterfly mentions her father’s death in Act I, the swords with which she later kills herself are taken by the actors and moved (very) slowly to a table near the house; the stage direction forces the audience to remember where these weapons have been put. Later, though, when Butterfly searches for the swords, they’ve somehow moved to the inside of the house. What was the point of such an effort to move them offstage? Lastly, when Butterfly commits hara-kiri, a red-ribbon symbolizes the blood from her body. When everything else in the production is portrayed realistically, what end is served by a sudden switch to fantasy symbolism? Removing superfluous and confusing directorial excess would help; while no stage director of an old production can effect major changes in the physical staging, surely Mr. Liotta could have tweaked several of these befuddling directorial choices.

Lyric Opera’s Madama Butterfly also served as a good opportunity to hear several members of Lyric Opera’s young artist program, the Ryan Opera Center. It seems as if the talent Lyric has selected is somewhat hit or miss; bass Paul Corona as Butterfly’s uncle The Bonze cracked in his entrance; baritone Corey Crider as Prince Yamadori, however, had no problem during his scene, singing clearly and with ample size for the Civic Opera House; mezzo Amber Wagner as Kate Pinkerton showed little movement on stage and even less expression—really, she was quite boring. Time will tell how these young singers develop both vocally and dramatically.

Ultimately, however, the success or failure of a performance of Madama Butterfly rests almost solely on the shoulders of the opera’s title character. Patricia Racette’s performance was more than merely a success; it was truly one of the most moving vocal and dramatic portrayals of Butterfly in recent memory.

Paul Wooley



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