Very moving Butterfly
Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is the most famous case of a notorious first-night flop achieving immortality. Its popularity has never waned since its relaunching in a revised version in Brescia months after the Milan debacle.
One reason attributed to the first night catastrophe was the lopsided two-act structure which is why Puccini created a shorter second act, adding the Humming Chorus at its end plus an orchestral intermezzo and Pinkerton’s Addio fiorito asil in the new third act.
Except for a performance in Prague some years ago, I have always seen Butterfly as Puccini wanted it, in three acts and two intervals.
Maybe some other factors in Prague made me feel that things were rather tedious and I kind of marvelled at that forgotten artistic director’s temerity to do exactly what Puccini wanted to avoid.
In the first of two Astra performances under review here, artistic director Enrico Stinchelli opted for a two-act version with just one interval. I am glad to say that it worked, mainly because of the superb characterisation of soprano Daniela Dessì in the title role.
Besides it proved that the opera’s original failure was very much due to other factors pertinent to the time it was first launched, as explained so brilliantly in Maria Frendo’s essay on the subject in the printed programme. Dr Frendo is to be congratulated on the way the Astra Opera Chorus, trained by her, proved to be one of the most positive factors in the performance, not only in the first act but also in the enchanting Humming Chorus which, with the projected video effects, created a wonderful, magical conclusion to Act I.
The production was a visual delight too and one never minded the same set remaining in place throughout the opera, the use of lights providing some variety in atmosphere.
Once more, the Manwel Grima/George Farrugia tandem came up with a fine array of costumes.
The title role is a very demanding one and it says much for Dessì’s great acting prowess that she made a convincing Madama Butterfly whose age in the plot ranges from 15 to 18.
She was most moving in the scenes with Sharpless when he tries to read Pinkerton’s letter to her, when she reacts to the inevitable repudiation she suffers and the intensely felt sequences when she is forced to abandon her son.
She handled the part in the wedding scene and love duet very well. It is only in the vocal department that one felt a bit disappointed ,because while her lower and middle registers are beautiful, full and well-rounded, her upper reaches were too shrill. At first I also found tenor Fabio Armiliato a bit disappointing, with some signs of strain when toasting the US with Sharpless and during some shorter sequences, but he improved greatly as the act wore on and sang splendidly and most convincingly in the love duet, fully complemented by Dessì, who is his real-life wife.
Of course, his caddish and cynical attitude makes his character an unpleasant one but he managed to redeem himself somehow in Addio fiorito asil, which he also sang with great ability.
Armiliato still has a physique much younger men would envy, but his full head of long curly hair somewhat jarred with what a US Navy officer would have looked like in 1904!
General opinion tallied with mine in finding the way Butterfly’s suicide was directed as being rather odd. Slitting one’s throat is not harakiri and Butterfly does it a bit earlier than what was seen here while her blindfolded child normally remains on– not offstage.
I am in full agreement with general opinion that baritone Carlo Guelfi (Sharpless, a decent character really) and mezzo-soprano Olga Sliepovna (Suzuki, the very faithful, affectionate maid) are first-class singing actors who carried off their roles beautifully.
They contributed a lot to the slick continuity of the action.
Also meriting justified plaudits was tenor Cliff Zammit Stevens as the marriage broker Goro. Unctuous, wily, an intrigant of the first order, the 24-year-old singer did very well in the role, disappearing after one of the most realistic thrashings of Goro at Butterfly’s and Suzuki’s hands I have ever seen.
This role was a much bigger one than in last year’s Norma and Astra is doing well to invest in this very promising young singer by casting him in its productions.
Some of the very small roles were taken by bass Dario Russo (lo Zio Bonzo), tenor Bernard Busuttil (Yamadori) and Elaine Borg (Kate Pinkerton).
Joseph Vella’s great experience in conducting opera stood him well again this time and had a Malta Philharmonic Orchestra on full form, holding the whole musical structure together and fully complementary with the action on stage.