Madama Butterfly:  A Pair of Performances
 Metropolitan Opera 
December 14, 2001
B. F. Pinkerton:
U. S. Consul Sharpless:
Walter Fraccarro
Maria Zifchak
Kim Josephson
Catherine Malfitano
Marco Armiliato
* * * * *

Somewhat apprehensive about what I was letting myself in for, especially after last year’s fiasco with the highly unidiomatic Michelle Crider and the current state of Malfitano’s voice, I still decided to attend this performance.  I realized afterward that, whatever my misgivings, Malfitano always delivers a total depiction of every heroine she sings and acts.  Her Butterfly, never less than sympathetic, created increasing levels of audience involvement and sympathy as the opera progressed.  Her portrayal of this abandoned teen-aged bride asked to give up her child to the man who abandoned her was never less than riveting, despite some minor vocal mishaps.  If she was somewhat less than successful in negotiating some of the passagio difficulties so common in Puccini’s scores, she was always equal to the blockbuster climactic notes demanded by this composer.  In fact, mentioning Crider and Malfitano in the same breath is like committing a capital crime.

I was particularly interested is seeing what Catherine Malfitano would do with the love duet, especially since her highly graphic, 21st century approach to it during this production’s inaugural season with Richard Leech was met with such disapproval by several of the retired beloved Butterflys of yore.  During last season’s love duet with Crider, and possibly in reaction to the demonstration of the retired divas, the newlyweds were rarely closer than 5-10 feet of each other, making it impossible to believe that Cio-Cio-San and her Pinkerton were truly in love.  Malfitano’s reactions to Pinkerton’s impatient love-making attempts were those of both a well-trained geisha who knows how to prolong the love-making and further inflame her lover with a judicious --but not off-putting-- combination of refused kisses and interrupted embraces; and romantic reflections on her new-found situation by a teenager experiencing her first love.  At the end of the duet, she finally embraces and kisses him, then falls backward, with her arms stretched out to the sides, as if to say, “Now I’m ready.  You may take me.  I am yours.” Rarely, in my opera-going experience, have I seen such a beautifully thought-out presentation of the love duet as I did on Friday evening.

Catherine Malfitano’s entire performance was informed by a judicious mixture of formalized Geisha training and the excitement and frustration of a loving but abandoned young bride who refuses to believe her husband would treat her so poorly:  her interactions with Suzuki, Goro, Sharpless, Yamadori . . . and even her son.

The first time I heard Maria Zifchak was as the Page in the Opera Orchestra of New York’s presentation of Les Huguenots, earlier this year (see review), I liked her rich, plummy voice and apt interpretation, and I also liked them during this performance.  Her appearance in this Butterfly, however, proves to me that her voice has no difficulty filling the Metropolitan Opera House with its attractive sound and reaching every nook and cranny of that theater.

Kim Josephson’s smooth baritone has served him well as Sharpless and is certainly ready to take on some of the more demanding roles for his fach.

I found Walter Fraccaro a slight disappointment as Pinkerton.  His voice suffered some of the same upper passagio problems as did his Butterfly’s voice, but I found his performance rather mundane, with little originality or interesting interpretational novelties to contribute.  His vocal problems might stem from a cold, an allergy or dryness caused by steam heat.  If he remains at the Met to sing other featured roles, we will probably have an opportunity to hear him in a better light.

I also found the conducting of Marco Armiliato a mixed bag.  It seemed appropriate during the highly emotional scenes but, in my estimation, tended to drag.  Several sections of Act I, especially the conversation with Sharpless, Pinkerton and Butterfly, as well as much of the love duet, seemed to lack forward momentum.  Thanks to Catherine Malfitano, however, this performance was well worth attending.


 The Opera Company of Brooklyn 
December 14, 2001
Klitgord Auditorium—New York City Technical College
B. F. Pinkerton:
U. S. Consul Sharpless:
German Villar
John Zuckerman
Elizabeth Saunders
Galen Scott Bower
Michelle Mattalina
Jay D. Meetze
Ira Siff
* * * * *

A year ago I reviewed this young company’s inaugural performance, consisting of two operas, Mozart’s The Impresario and Menotti’s The Medium (see review).  This, their second production, is a most ambitious venture.

Whenever I hear Jay Meetze (pronounced Metz) conduct an orchestra, I am always amazed at what he can pull out of it.  He takes a bunch of young (and usually quite talented) freelance musicians from anywhere and everywhere and makes of them a highly expressive ensemble.  To me, that’s more difficult than conducting the Met Orchestra or the NYCO orchestra.  Most of those musicians are highly trained as the kind of ensemble each particular company needs.  With a pick-up orchestra, every production requires the music director to start from scratch again to build his ensemble.  Young Meetze pulls it off—and impressively.

Furthermore, for a fledgling company like the OCB, whose aim is to introduce talented young singers, mostly American, to its public, to produce and perform such an ambitious opera as Madama Butterfly, and make it work, is a most impressive achievement.  And work it did; from the tense and anticipatory orchestral introduction to the final chords!

The introductory prelude opens in Nagasaki, about 10-13 years after the opera’s action, which has been updated to take place between 1948 and 1951.  We first see a table with a suitcase and an officer’s hat on it and a dress blue naval officer’s jacket folded over a chair.  In ambles a young teenager who, after looking at both the jacket and the suitcase, tries the hat on.  He then opens the suitcase and examines its contents, which consist of some articles of clothing, scarves and pictures, which he carefully looks at.  Just as he attempts to try on the jacket, an older man enters, takes both hat and jacket from the boy and, with his arm around the boys shoulders walks past what turns out to be Butterfly’s house.  The opera then begins.

I wonder if, after that mimed scene, the mind of everyone in the audience was working as fast as mine?  My conclusion is in the next paragraph.

We first see Goro in a black-and-white, thin-striped, double-breasted suit, wearing dark glasses.  He swishes in with a newspaper under his arm, talking to Pinkerton, who slowly follows him in.  It is the man who walked out with the boy.  All off a sudden, we realize that this is a flashback in Pinkerton’s mind.  He is visiting Japan with the son he had with Butterfly and took back to the U.S.  At the start of this flashback, Pinkerton appears troubled and unsteady, perhaps a bit drunk, perhaps a lot hung over.  Before the arrival of his bride-to-be, he drinks a considerable amount with Sharpless.

When German Villar first opened his mouth to sing, I heard an attractive voice with squillo to burn.  I knew the evening was going to be a good one.  This performance was the American debut of the handsome young Valencian tenor.  He made his operatic debut as Alfredo in La Traviata in his native Valencia, where he has also sung in zarzuelas and recitals.  He has also sung Don Jose in Parma, and will be making a role-debut as Lenski in Eugene Onegin at Opera North in New Hampshire.  As his voice grows to fill some of the major American opera houses, I can only hope it loses none of its beauty.  I look forward to hearing more of him.

I would like to hear baritone Galen Scott Bower, in roles more challenging than Sharpless.  His voice lent richness to the performance and his acting was very true-to-life, demonstrating his sympathetic support of Butterfly and his frustration with Pinkerton’s choices.

Soprano Michelle Mattalina has sung major roles, including Mimi, Butterfly, Violetta and Micaela, with several regional opera companies here in the United States.  She made her European debut as Suor Angelica, which was televised in Italy, and created the role of Harriett Mosher in the Santa Fé world premiere of Picker’s Emmeline, telecast nationally on the PBS Great Performances series.  I was expecting a powerhouse Cio-Cio-San after reading her bio, but was faced with a careful soprano who has a tendency to husband her resources, often to the detriment of the drama.  She certainly has an attractive voice and the power to provide the drama, as demonstrated in parts of the love duet and the final scene of the opera.  Her “Un bel di,” however, was so carefully sung as to remove all life from this dramatic cornerstone of the opera.  In a major opera house, I cannot help but think that she would have lost at least half her audience after such a lackluster rendition of this most famous of arias.

As Suzuki, mezzo-soprano, Elizabeth Saunders regaled us with lush and secure voice coupled with highly effective and intense interpretation.  If, as a Japanese servant, she was often unable to express herself via body language, all one had to do was look at the fire in her eyes.  She has sung a varied repertoire all over the world, including Osaka, Pittsburgh, Lucca, Aspen, and Lake George.  I rather suspect we will hear this young artist in some of the country’s major houses before long.

In his “Director’s Notes,” Ira Siff tells us that he updated the opera to post World War II Japan, with Act I taking place in 1948 and Acts II and III in 1951 “to remind the audience that the kinds of relationships and feelings realized by Puccini and his librettists have resonance in our own recent history.”  If one does not think too much about history, this reasoning can easily be accepted.  If, however, one remembers that, in 1945, Nagasaki was destroyed by an even more powerful atomic bomb than the one dropped on Hiroshima, we can only wonder where, in that seriously dangerous radiation-ridden city, the U.S. Government could have stationed troops only 3 years later.  Furthermore, here in New York City, September 11 saw the destruction of the mere few acres of the World Trade Center complex.  It is no-where near cleaned up three months later, and probably will not be for several more months, maybe years.  Nagasaki was destroyed.  I do not think rebuilding started before the 1950s.  While it is perfectly acceptable for Mr. Siff to depict a fictional Nagasaki not affected by the atomic explosion 3-6 years earlier in order to point up the problems of the 90,000 children born as a result of relationships between Japanese women and American GIs, many of us who were alive at the time of the bombing vividly remember how it affected the people in those areas of Japan and wonder how Cio-Cio-San could have survived without serious horrifying injuries.  While I have never cared for updated versions of operas, I find this particular one rather upsetting.

I also have some questions about the costumes, understanding full well that in this updated version, Western-style clothing was being worn by more and more Japanese.  Traditionally, Pinkerton wears the summer white uniform of the officer, especially since all three acts take place in summer.  I’m sure there is a good reason for choosing a dress blue uniform for this Pinkerton and would love to know what it is.  Also, when Butterfly adopts Western clothing because she is the wife of an American naval officer, why does she wear a knee-length shmattah of a skirt?  I was alive at the time and remember women wearing calf-length and ankle length skirts and dresses.  Is my memory faulty? Is Butterfly’s short skirt supposed to “mean” something?

Despite the questions I have raised, I still marvel at how much Ira Siff and the costume designer achieved on what must have been a miniscule budget.  I continue to support this company as much as I can.

-- Howard in Griswold Hall   

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