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I Love Trouble

New York
New York State Theater
09/11/2005 -  
Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly
Cio-Cio San: Jee Hyun Lim
Suzuki: Kathryn Friest
B.F. Pinkerton: Brandon Jovanovich
Goro: Robert Mack
Sharpless: Jake Gardner
Imperial Commissioner: William Ledbetter
The Bonze: Brian McIntosh
Prince Yamadori: Kyungmook Yum
NYCO Orchestra
Ari Pelto (conductor)

The cherry blossoms are in bloom again on the stage of New York City Opera, which began its run of "Madama Butterfly" yesterday afternoon. In a sense, the work originated not at La Scala, but in New York. The David Belasco play on which it is based first appeared at the Herald Square Theater on March 5, 1900. Soon thereafter, Puccini saw the staged version in London and immediately recognized it as translatable to his own delicate mode of composition.
I have mixed feelings about this Mark Lamos production. Many of the devices, such as the blood-red American ships and hundreds of petals falling from the rafters, are extremely heavy-handed. But the essentially bare stage conveys the simplicity of the story rather well. There is no paper house, and therefore there are no holes through which Butterfly can watch for her husband. But the movable walls of Michael Yeargan establish an interesting perspective for the audience, which is both inside and outside the action at various key moments.
Conductor Ari Pelto led a colorful performance. The orchestra was especially eloquent in the louder, dramatic sections, and in a heartrending "vigil theme." Secondary characters were mostly serviceable, but Kyungmook Yum was extremely lyrical in the small but vital role of Yamadori.
City Opera has come a long way: There have been seasons in which a love duet like this "Viene la sera" would have been an impossible dream. Jee Hyun Lim sang against type. We have become accustomed to the darker, huskier-voiced geisha over the years, whereas Ms. Lim is a bit lighter of tone. However, she was most believable in another important aspect of the role: It has been much easier for most divas to pretend to be Japanese than to look fifteen.
After some shrillness in Act I, Ms. Lim settled in for a fine performance, earning a massive standing ovation at the work’s conclusion. Now I grew up during the era when the choice of Butterfly was between Callas and Tebaldi, so I am probably a bit jaded, but this woman performed admirably throughout, romantic in the Viene la sera, coltish in the Scuoti quella fronda di ciliego, fabulous in Un bel di. Further, she had a physical energy that allowed her to exhibit that pent-up enthusiasm that ultimately goes nowhere.
Brandon Jovanovich was himself a bit against type. His is an heroic tenor, full and fleshy, while most successful Pinkertons are more lyrical and oriented towards the big high note. But this particular sailor was not to be gainsaid and convinced by the sheer consistency of his artistry. I am probably the worst one to judge this sort of thing, but I did overhear one woman say that this Pinkerton was so handsome that he was “almost worth killing yourself over”.
Perhaps before I write these last sentences I should emphasize that Mr. Jovanovich sang very well in this performance. But to really judge the dramatic effectiveness of these two fine young principals, think about this. When Pinkerton came out for his curtain call, he was roundly and heartily booed. Judging by his reaction, Mr. Jovanovich realized that he had received a compliment.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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