The Atlanta Opera opened its 2014-15 season with an enthusiastically received presentation of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. The opening of the season marks the turning of a new leaf for the company, it being the first planned season by its new General Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun. Mr. Zvulun, whose prior work with the Atlanta Opera found him in the director’s chair, is a champion of applying new technologies to the operatic stage seldom seen in Atlanta prior to his arrival. Indeed, before the curtain’s rise, Mr. Zvulun addressed the audience, and in addition to the traditional salutations and contribution acknowledgements, he praised the Atlanta Opera audience for its sophisticated taste, declaring it ready for more adventurous presentations from this point forward.
The sets, designed by Erhard Rom, are simple and evocative. A row six shoji screens framed by bamboo panels provided the basic mise en scene, while the depiction of natural elements heavily relied on the use of filmed projections. These were most effective when used to represent realistic visuals (a garden of blooming cherry trees, the rolling mist and the Nagasaki harbor, or a distant moon in the firmament as night falls). The innovation took on a chancier nature when used as a means of expression, and considering that Mr. Puccini entrusted such matters in the hands of the singers and the musicians in the orchestra, things threatened to get a bit heavy handed. Some gambles worked, like the virtual flooding of the stage by the moon and the ocean waters at the end of the first act, or the projection of serene waves against the waiting Cio-Cio-San during the opera’s famous humming chorus seemed to emulate the emotion in a poetic and sensible way. Even here it seemed an unnecessary over punctuation, and many of these interpolations (such as the kaleidoscope of butterflies that overwhelm the opera’s short prelude, or the short film shown during the musical interlude which connects the two scenes in the second act) bordered on a lack of confidence that the piece could hold the public’s attention in its basic form. Multimedia and technology has a place in the lyric stage, but its introduction also runs the risk of going down the path taken by computer generated imagery in science fiction films. It may well clash with the organic artifice of the lyric stage if not used in an appropriate context. Projections are of course an ever-present part of Mr. Tomer’s aesthetic (as seen in his Lucia back in 2011), and we are likely to have to live with it and enjoy it for the good it can bring.
From the pit, conductor Arthur Fagen led a tidy, if somewhat drowsy reading of the complicated score. To his credit, he did much to create a near perfect balance between the orchestral forces and the lung capacity of the singers onstage, which he valiantly supported throughout the long evening. And support from the pit, specially for the soprano valiantly undertaking the opera’s title role, is essential. The role of Madama Butterfly ranks as one of the most arduous and dangerous in the lyric soprano repertoire. The part is long, and the suffering endured by the character often tempts the emotional prima donna to go beyond her own measure, resulting in a myriad of cautionary tales in the annals of operatic history. Leontyne Price felt burned out by it, Renata Scotto’s discography shows significant vocal deterioration when the bookends are compared, and Mirella Freni, after being joined by the Three Tenors in three famous studio recordings (one of them a film), never agreed to sing the full role onstage. Making her Atlanta Opera debut in a role she has previously essayed at English National Opera, soprano Dina Kuznetsova sang a beautiful and valid account of the part.
Through Puccini’s magical introduction, “Ancora un passo or via” there was much to admire in the newcomer: She yielded a soprano of full lyric warmth, central in nature, with a solid but unadventurous top (she bypassed the optional high D flat in her introduction, and the high B capping her lullaby was sketchy). The basic requirement, that of a voice lying in the sweet spot between full lyric beauty and spinto thrust, was there, and throughout the evening the was much glowing velvet to be enjoyed. Those qualifications aside, her singing did lacked edge, and vocally she shed few new revelations on the part. The use of chest voice (essential in Italian opera of this period) was almost completely bypassed, and while certainly expressive, she was not a great exponent of what the Italians refer to as the parola scenica. This was a significant set back, as the undertaking of this Puccini heroine, as well as in those of most operas of the verismo school involve the creation of an expressive vocal picture which encapsulates a personality. Her legato, too, was marred by a constant habit of sliding into note, which deadened the vitality of her phrasing. Her performance was thus not encyclopedic, but impressed in the manner with which she managed to fulfill the requirements within her share of limitations. What she was unable to indicate with her voice, she covered through her acting, which was well measured and at times memorable. For the first act, she avoided the voce infantile and defaulted to a meek, vampy charm to express teenage innocence and inexperience. Later on, her exchanges with Yamadori found her coyly enjoying her imagined upper hand, reminding all of the young and vibrant light that is doomed to fade all too soon. Her realization of her fading looks, too, was profound. Intelligently, she banked on the opera’s prize numbers, and her entrance, the famous “Un bel di”, and the flower duet were all delivered with generous tone. For the opera’s emotional denounment, she cleverly avoided great indulgences, leaving it somewhat calculatingly tepid but more than serviceable. Ms. Kuznetsova overall gave an intelligently paced and beautifully voiced performance, one which has the potential of one day becoming a profound experience. We will keep an eye out for her.
Singing the part of the man responsible for her misfortune, Adam Diegel cut an imposing figure as B.F. Pinkerton. His was a sturdy tenor, broadly produced and likely of spinto size, which rode impressively over the orchestra in an exciting way. The role’s tough tessitura held little terrors, and in the challenging duet “Amore o grillo” he conquered the exposed high C in the revelatory phrase “con vere nozze a una vera sposa americana”. The tone of this instrument, however, is a bit on the dry side, and he used it to great effect as a way of expressing a brusque, vacuous character. We are not supposed to like this guy, and Mr. Diegel made it very easy. Yet, while his singing was often impressive, it was hardly alluring, and he was less at home bending this tight tone to embrace the Puccini line. His famous duet, “bimba non piangere” was dutifully sung but hardly seduced. Those with closed eyes wondered if they principals would excuse themselves to separate bedrooms, while those who chose to keep them open were better convinced by his undeniable good looks. His brief participation in the opera’s final scene reinforced this, with Mr. Diegel providing a virile and impressive read of his aria “addio fiorito assil” all the while further underlying the cowardly character that somehow was not booed by the women in the audience during the curtain calls. It was a strange way to succeed in a part. A voice of a sweeter disposition was that of the Sharpless, sung by Corey McKern. Here was a beautifully molded lyric baritone, perhaps a trifle light for the role. Wisely, he was not lured into singing past his resources when pitted against the mighty wall of sound coming from his brazen countryman. Instead, he deflected his efforts to sensitively phrasing his music and made the most out of his short but important role. He was well matched by the Suzuki of Nina Yoshida Nelsen, whose sympathetic and well-placed mezzo-soprano proved the ideal support for Butterfly’s trials throughout the interminable second act. Finally, the important comprimario part of Goro was vividly delivered by tenor Jason Ferrante.
The Atlanta Opera offers three more performances of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly before the week comes to a close. For ticket information, please visit the company’s website at www.atlantaopera.org