Saxophone Colossi
Sweet Sorrow

Float Like a Butterfly...

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I was persuaded to take time out from a busy week at work to attend City Opera's Wednesday night performance of Madam Butterfly by two primary factors. One, was that as a "Big Deal" subscriber - City Opera's new program for patrons under 40 - I was able to purchase a prime orchestra seat for only $30 (normally $115.) The other was an invitation to a free cocktail party afterward on the Grand Promenade - and after the week I've had, I could use a drink.

The production, by Mark Lamos, has been a staple of City Opera's repertory for several seasons, but has been naturally overshadowed this year by the Met's universally acclaimed new production from earlier this season, directed by Anthony Minghella. Having seen them both now, it is probably unfair to compare the two, given the Met's vastly larger resources for costumes, sets and singers (not to mention whatever it cost to project the opening night performance of Butterfly in Times Square.)

But there are certain basic standards that a professional opera company should be expected to adhere to, and while the orchestra sounded fine and the production was generally engaging, several performances did not make the grade. In particular, Christopher Jackson, who sang the role of Pinkerton, was often drowned out  by the orchestra, and his top notes were all but inaudible. Moreover, he was awkward and unconvincing as the American sailor who enters into an arranged marriage with a young Japanese girl while on station in Nagasaki. There were also issues with the set design, with several singers tripping over the huge parachute-like fabric used to cover the stairs in Act II.   

Dsc03943Fortunately, the evening was salvaged by Shu-Ying Li, who was a revelation as Pinkerton's betrothed, Cio-Cio-San. A native of China, Li threw herself into the role fearlessly, her voice soaring over the orchestra. She also was riveting dramatically, full of defiance and rage at her abandonment by Pinkerton. During the curtain calls, Li received a well-deserved standing ovation. Also excellent was Florida native Keri Alkema, who was making her City Opera debut as Cio-Cio-San's handmaiden Suzuki. 

The sizeable crowd was diverse in age and background, with many dressed to the nines for the occasion. I even noticed several girls in kimonos and sandals. Butterfly is a real winner of an opera, with powerful music and recognizable American themes: Puccini quotes The Star Spangled Banner more than once in his score, and Lamos emphasized the point by putting U.S. Flag streamers in Cio-Cio-San's hair. Just the sort of thing that'll keep the kids coming back for more.

Dsc03945At the cocktail party afterward, I spoke to some City Opera staffers about putting on opera literally in the shadow of the Met. They reminded me that many of the Met's recent successes were initiated by City Opera and their departing General and Artistic Director, Paul Kellogg. Besides Butterfly, these include: performances of Handel operas; Bartlet Sher, who directed this season's Barber of Seville; and Rolando Villazon, who got his big break as Rodolfo in City Opera's production of Puccini's La Boheme. I also learned about some of the exciting new productions coming up next season, including Samuel Barber's Vanessa, with the dramatic soprano Lauren Flanigan singing the title role, and Richard Danielpour's new opera Margaret Garner, which features a libretto by Toni Morrison. And, they told me that Gerard Mortier, who is set to take over City Opera in 2008, is already flying over from Paris once a month on an advisory basis. "He's very nice," they said. "He brings us French chocolates."

Dsc03933Margaret Garner was originally workshopped as part of VOX, City Opera's innovative development program for new American opera. On May 12-13 at NYU's Skirball Center, there will be panel discussions and staged performances of excerpts from twelve innovative new works by both established and emerging composers, including a performance of John Zorn’s “La Machine de l’être”. Admission is free.

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