Palm Beach Opera opens 50th season with a worthy “Butterfly”

By David Fleshler

Maria Luigia Borsi as Cio-Cio-San and James Valenti as Pinkerton in Palm Beach Opera's production of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly." Photo: Julius Ahn.

Palm Beach Opera opened its 50th anniversary season Friday with a worthy production of Puccini’s Madama Butterflyat the Kravis Center, although the performance fell short of the shattering emotional impact that can come with the best stagings of this classic tragedy.

The orchestra under music director Bruno Aprea outdid itself, with a richly colored performance that was the strongest element of the evening. As Cio-Cio San, the soprano Maria Luigia Borsi brought a creamy voice to the role, convincingly conveying her character’s transformation from love-struck girl to tragic heroine. The lean, handsome American tenor James Valenti made a believable Pinkerton, with a voice that grew in strength and depth in the course of the evening.

The production, from the San Francisco Opera, used a spare set dominated by the traditional sliding screens, with a few nice details, like a portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt brought in by Pinkerton in the first act and still glowering self-importantly from the stage in the last, as if to emphasize the bumptious American arrogance that brings Butterfly to her demise. And when Pinkerton returns to Nagasaki in the ┬ásecond act, a silhouette of his battleship dominates the stage, effectively set against the modest interior of Cio-Cio San’s house.

Borsi has performed more in Europe than then United States, and her most prominent work — although her program biography omits it — probably came in her tours with pop tenor Andrea Bocelli. Although her voice was rich and technically on target, her high notes sometimes had a hardness ill-suited the role, as in the climax of Un bel di. Still, Borsi’s plush middle range brought warmth to Butterfly’s expressions of maternal love and anguished yearning, with softly floating high notes when she sang about having to return to the life of a geisha to support her son, and it is these moments, rather than impassioned top notes, that form the role’s emotional core.

Valenti previously sang Pinkerton at Palm Beach Opera in 2007. Of all the principals, he inhabited his role most convincingly, from the casually arrogant stride in the first act to his cringing remorsefulness in the last. He was a bit underpowered vocally at the beginning, and his Dovunque al mondo,┬áPinkerton’s tribute to the Yankee’s untrammeled freedom, at times was covered by the orchestra. But he brought an aching sense of desire to his love scene with Cio-Cio San and a lustrous warmth and anguish to the final act trio.

Among the other roles, there were two standouts. The mezzo-soprano Irene Roberts brought an opulent voice to the role of Suzuki, exuding quiet concern for Cio-Cio San, as in the second act prayer E Izaghi e Izanami. As Sharpless, the baritone Michael Chioldi handled the role in an assured, confident manner, conveying moral decency and concern for Pinkerton’s victims, all with a subtlety and realism that allowed him to show disapproval for Pinkerton with a glance or gesture. His grave voice worked well with Valenti’s brighter instrument, radiating compassion in Io so che alle sue pene and at the end of the opera.

In this version, directed by Ron Daniels, Pinkerton remains off stage at the end, rather than entering the house to see the dying Butterfly and her child. This is a significant change from the libretto, denying the audience the chance to see the feckless Pinkerton confront the fruits of his behavior, with no real payoff .

Among the strongest moments of the opera were the ensemble sections, led by Aprea’s sure conducting: the finely paced first-act entrance of Cio-Cio San and her family, with luminous singing by the chorus, and the final scene in which the remorseful Pinkerton realizes what he has wrought.

As the loathsome marriage broker Goro, the tenor Julius Ahn brought a powerful voice and unctuous, pseudo-deferential manner that suited this junior partner to Pinkerton’s crime. Valentin Vasiliu was an imposing Bonze, with a voice and physical presence for the role of tremble-inducing patriarch. Shirin Eskandani brought compassion to the role of Kate Pinkerton, without intruding any more than her limited role warranted.

Palm Beach Opera’s Madama Butterfly repeats Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. For the Saturday performance, Michele Capalbo sings Cio-Cio San and Rafael Davila sings Pinkerton. pbopera.org, 561-832-7469.

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Sat Dec 17, 2011
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