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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Opera Review: Out of the Chrysalis

The Met's new Butterfly spreads her wings.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Cherries jubilee: Amanda Echalaz is radiant as the Met's new Butterfly.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2014 The Metropolitan Opera.
Madama Butterfly is cursed twice. The role is long and difficult, with plenty of exposed passages where the voice has to lead the orchestral accompaniment and convey the wide range of emotions suffered by the title character. The fact that it is one of the most iconic and best-loved parts in the repertory only adds to the challenge for any singer. Adding one more turn to the screw is the popularity and success of this production by the late Anthony Minghella, one of the few new productions of the Peter Gelb era to receive universal praise from the finicky Metropolitan Opera audience.

This season's revival of Butterfly features a new leading lady: South African soprano Amanda Echalaz. On Monday night, in her second performance of the role at the opera house, Ms. Echalaz was a radiant, if slighty unpolished Butterfly, showing experience and stamina over the course of this treacherous part. Hers is not the largest soprano voice, and it tends to spread and vibrate widely when placed under pressure, but it was an involved, strongly acted performance that delved deep into the nuance of the character and the reasons for her ultimate decision.

Ms. Echalaz' intelligent, slightly cool interpretation tracked Butterfly's evolution from a 15-year old innocent to an 18-year old unwed and outcast mother. She was cautious and finally passionate in the rapturous love duet with Pinkerton (Bryan Hymel). Ms. Echalaz brought a  bright, head-voice climax to the famous aria "Un bel di,"  firing off the twin top notes that appear at its climax. She shifted gears when confronted in the second act with the harsh realities of daily life in Nagasaki, and the economic reality of a proposed match with the pompous Prince Yamadori. (She gave this would-be suitor the harsh treatment he deserved in a powerful, utterly feminist moment.)

This production opts for an intermission pause in the middle of Act Two, in accordance with Puccini's revision of the score. A sublime, slightly humorous Flower Duet led to the hypnotic glories of the Humming Chorus. This brief idyll paved the way for the searing denouement, ending in Butterfly's ritual suicide Here, Ms. Echalaz made the interactions with her son "Trouble" (played in this production by a bunraku puppet) poignant before singing the demanding last high notes. This performance was compelling and shows considerable promise for the future.

For Mr. Hymel (who made an astonishing Met debut last season in Les Troyens) the future is now. The love-'em-and-leave-'em Lieutenant B.F.  Pinkerton is one of the least likable leading men in opera, but Mr. Hymel's bright, optimistic tone was easy on the ears and had a certain gung-ho energy that swept the viewer up in his passion for Butterfly. The wayward Lieutenant's return in the last act made one realize how much this fine singer had been missed in the interim, as he sang his final aria with full, rich tone and genuine grief for ruining Butterfly's life. This was in every way a fulfilment of the promise shown last season.

Elizabeth DeShong was a poignant Suzuki, conveying the ambivalence of Butterfly's devoted servant with an undernote of sheer panic. Scott Hendricks, another singer new to this production, caught the many shades of Sharpless and underlined his inability to solve Butterfly's crisis despite his good intentions. Tony Stevenson brought acidic wit and bite to Goro, the marriage broker. Ryan Speedo Green was imposing as the Bonze, in thunderous voice for his brief Act I appearance. Also impressive in costume and voice: Alexey Lavrov as the conceited Yamadori.

For this performance, conductor Philippe Auguin was ill. Pierre Vallet proved a most able substitute, lending a chamber-like texture to the opening act and conducting a pianissmo Humming Chorus that made the darkened house afraid to breathe. The Met orchestra, chorus and dancers (supplanted by a small army of black-clad puppeteers) were all in excellent form in this revival.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.