Madama Butterfly

Music by Giacomo Puccini
Metropolitan Opera, 14 February 2000

B.F. Pinkerton:
Sergej Larin
Bernard Fitch
Wendy White
Kim Josephson
Michele Crider
Conductor: Julius Rudel

On February 14, because Dennis so likes this opera and found the NYCO performance we attended effective enough to have him weeping for 15 minutes at its close, I decided he should experience the Metropolitan Opera production. During this performance, I had to nudge him constantly to keep him from snoring.

I must admit that I, too, found the performance a bore. Never once did it take flight and lift us above the mundane details of our daily life; never once did it transport us into an artistic location that kept us at the edge of our seats; never once did it elicit concern from me over the fate of the heroine. In fact, I was pretty relieved when she finally committed hara kiri.

In the cast list, above, I purposely omitted the really minor roles because the singers who performed then did rather well, and I shanít take up space listing them here. Iím concerned mainly with the six artists listed above, and how they contributed to the final effect of the performance.

I can find no real fault with the conducting of Julius Rudel. In areas of the score where I have reacted a certain way for over 40 years, I did last evening. Never once was a voice obliterated by the orchestraís volume; and I like to hear the singers. The following is hard to explain, since I am not a musician: I would have liked a bit more impetus, forward push, in the orchestra which, as usual, played quite well.

Sergej Larin provided us with a handsome Pinkerton. His acting was quite effective, and I could really believe his regret at causing Butterfly such pain, even if he only realized it at the last moment. What that says about who Pinkerton really is as a person deserves further discussion. Histrionically, I think that the challenge of this role lies in making such a shallow, jingoistc and self-centered young man elicit anything from the audience but antipathy. That challenge was both met and overcome in Larin's case. While his voice does not always have the "ping" or brillance of a Domingo, a Tucker, a Björling or a Di Stefano in this role, he did, occasionally, achieve moments of bright and ringing sound. That he was able to convince us of his lust for Butterfly, despite Paul Millsí blocking of the Act I love duet which rarely had the lovers closer than ten to twenty feet from each other before the final kiss and the walk into the house, is to his credit as a singing actor. Certainly a decent tenor, Larin does not, in my opinion, rise to the pantheon currently shared by Domingo and--to a lesser extent--Pavarotti.

Bernard Fitch, Kim Josephson and Wendy White all performed their roles with both vocal and histrionic depth and effectiveness. Fitch and White were also in the Hoffmann I attended a few weeks ago, and Josephson has a handsome baritone voice and dashing good looks--at least, from the center of the balcony without opera glasses.

I had a great deal of difficulty believing Michele Crider as Butterfly. With the exception of the costume--which merely succeeded in giving her an ample and rotund look--there was no effort to make her up as a geisha. I remember catching parts of the telecast with Malfitano and Leech in this very same production a few years ago. Neither did Malfitano look like a geisha; in fact, no effort was made to give her a Japanese "look". I can only assume this was a decision shared Giancarlo del Monaco, Michael Scott and Paul Mills--one with which I thoroughly disagree. For, who is a geisha for an American audience without her makeup? Despite her desire to "become an American", Puccini's Butterfly retains all the social subtleties she has been taught in her training as a geisha, as we so clearly see in Act III.

Crider has, apparently, received considerable coaching in this role. She knows all the notes and sings them pretty well--more or less. Her voice, however, is not beautiful or even appealing. Nor does it take wing. While most Butterfly lovers--myself included--expect to "melt" at her Act I entrance, as we have with Lehmann (in German, even), Albanese, De los Angeles, Tebaldi, Leontyne Price and Scotto, I just sat there disappointed, wondering what would be coming next. And thatís how it went for all of her performance. I could tell that she was making every attempt to communicate Cio-Cio-Sanís feelings, and she was successful, more or less, in achieving that in Act III. The longing and excitement of "Un bel di" did not even reach me. Her Act I solo in the middle of the love duet. "Son io la dea della luna", did not communicate to me any of the feelings of a romantic teenaged bride anticipating her wedding night, as do the two performances I own with De los Angeles. There was very little delicacy and almost no vocal subtlety. Throughout her entire performance I felt that I was observing the story of someone else--someone about whom I did not care very much. Even though I am a man, I expect a Butterfly who, through her beauty of voice, delicacy, and intensity of interpretation, makes even me become her. Albanese and De los Angeles did that. Why canít todayís performers do it, too?

Howard in Brooklyn

Literary content:
Copyright:  © 2000 Howard Levin

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