Thursday, October 12, 2023

Teatro di San Carlo - Madama Butterfly - 09/27/23

Composer: Giacomo Puccini 
Librettists: Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa 
Director: Ferzan Özpetek 
Conductor: Dan Ettinger 
Cio-Cio-San (Madama Butterfly): Ailyn Perez 
Pinkerton: Saimir Pirgu 
Suzuki: Marina Comparato 
Sharpless: Ernesto Petti 
Goro: Paolo Antognetti 

As my friend Vittorio and I were patiently waiting for the concert of Bellini’s Beatrice di Tenda to start at the San Carlo a couple of weeks ago, I was also doing my very best to eavesdrop on the animated conversation among three San Carlo regulars sitting nearby who had attended a performance of Madama Butterfly, the San Carlo’s official season-opening opera, earlier in the week. Although the distance made it difficult to hear their complete take on it, I was still able to figure out that the soprano was “extraordinary” and the production “all wrong”. So there. 
Since the soprano was Ailyn Perez, the first statement was no surprise, and since the ladies reminded me of my mom, which means the type of opera buff who hates everything nontraditional, I did not worry about it either. Moreover, since I had bought our tickets as soon as they went on sale months ago — You simply cannot dillydally too long when it comes to warhorses at the San Carlo — we were going regardless of what the buzz on the street (and in the house) was. And frankly, after a symphonic concert and an opera concert, it was high time we hit the San Carlo for what it was originally designed for: a full-fledged opera. 
That said, our first night at the opera of the new season came at a weird time for us, as we were both reeling about the recent passing of (totally unrelated) dear friends of ours, and I had been awake since 3:35 AM, at which time an earthquake in the Campi Flegrei neighborhood unceremoniously rocked Naples and the Napolitans. 
Fortunately, the performance would start at 6:00 PM, which meant that not only we would be home at a decent hour, but also that we could stop at the Gambrinus for a substantial snack — I had rightly figured that a delizia al limone and a caffè del nonno would carry me through the evening — before heading to our fancy box in the packed opera house. 

I had really enjoyed by then already well-established American soprano Ailyn Perez in Don Carlo last year, and I was looking forward to hearing her in Madama Butterfly, a character that is as magnificent as it is challenging, and kind of different from her usual repertoire. Blessed with a naturally beautiful, limpid and elegant voice that she seems able to control at will, Perez did not rest on her laurels, and threw herself whole-heartedly into the tough assignment of bringing to life one of opera’s most beloved heroines. 
In the end, her Cio-Cio-San may have sounded a bit demurer than expected at first, but then again, we’re talking about a wide-eyed 15-year-old Japanese girl who willingly gives up everything she’s ever known to marry her American officer. Three years later, her husband gone, she has grown emotionally and vocally while still clinging to the hope that he will return, as it is made clear in the show-stopping aria “Un bel dì, vedremo”, a blazing example of wishful thinking that Perez nailed with heart-breaking grace and laser-focused intensity and that, as a matter of fact, stopped the show for a well-deserved thunderous ovation. 
As the opera gained popularity and has remained a reliable staple in opera houses all over the world, B.F. Pinkerton has unsurprisingly become synonymous with “cad”. Although he could not escape the unsavory label on Wednesday evening either, Albanian-born Italian tenor Saimir Pirgu turned his character into an engagingly complex human being, from shamelessly cynical libertine to genuinely remorseful man, with gloriously ringing top notes, dazzling timbre, impeccable phrasing and, let’s not forget, classical good looks and dazzling charisma. No to big outdone when it comes to the opera’s big hits, his thrilling “Addio, fiorito asil” brought down the house as well. 
Veteran Italian mezzo-soprano Marina Comparato was a wonderfully assertive Suzuki, a secondary character that is sometimes considered an after-thought and treated accordingly. This was, however, definitely not the case in this production, which made full use of Comparato’s wide-ranging singing and acting experience. Whether she railed against Goro or gently gathered flowers with Cio-Cio-San, her Suzuki was an excellent contribution to the action. 
Another smaller but crucial part in the opera is Sharpless, the American consul in Nagasaki, and here also, Italian baritone Ernesto Petti was given plenty of opportunities to shine, which he did with laudable no-fuss proficiency. A loyal friend to Pinkerton while keeping his distance from his moral deficiencies, this Sharpless benefitted immensely from Petti’s classy voice, which in particular displayed the right amount of sincere compassion in the final act. 

The main reason for which I hadn’t seen Madama Butterfly for over a decade is because I had been so taken by Anthony Minghella's striking production of it at the Met that I could not bring myself to checking out another one and most likely end up disappointed. Turkish-Italian director Ferzan Özpetek’s modern effort will not make me forget Minghella’s, but it certainly was not “all wrong” either. Resolutely minimalist with a hint of brutalist style, the set included a gray stormy sea in the background, colorfully lit Japanese houses in Act 1, and two massive side walls that would later on slowly but surely close in completely, building an insidious claustrophobic feeling and a stark separation between the two worlds in the process. 
Among the relatively original, albeit not boldly innovative, ideas were four silent red-clad geishas wandering among the audience as the performance was getting underway, and a video of Ailyn Perez starting with a close-up and progressively zooming out until we saw her waiting for her man by the shore at the end of Act 2. More puzzling was Pinkerton rhapsodizing about how lovely Cio-Cio-San looked all “dressed in lily” and “white veils” while she was right in front of him dressed in a stunning red outfit in Act 1. But hey, at least his compliments did not fall on deaf ears as she was wearing white in Acts 2 and 3. 
On the other hand, some choices did stand out positively. Being greeted by the light sound of waves nonchalantly crashing on a shore as we entered the theater was a nice transitional touch, and if the first night together of the newlywed couple was more gentle eroticism than hard-core sex on the beach, their extended love duet was pure enchantment to the ears and, come to think of it, the perfect incentive to in fact get in the mood. As for Cio-Cio-San’s tragic ending, her hara-kiri was a culturally correct, and just as efficient, slicing of the throat. 

Puccini’s score for Madama Butterfly is both gorgeous musical journey and treacherous obstacle course, but our maestro for the evening, the San Carlo’s young and dynamic music director Dan Ettinger, made a point of keeping everything in check, from the delicate balance between the various parties on and off stage to the sustained pace of the narrative. While the opera itself may feel a bit static at times, on Wednesday evening the music kept everything going briskly and splendidly, with ravishing colors, intense lyricism and dazzling melodies. And seriously, what more could we have wanted for our night at the opera? Absolutely nothing.

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