Chinese soprano is unforgettable in Florida Grand Opera’s shattering “Butterfly”

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Seconds after the curtain fell Saturday night, a male usher at the back of the Ziff Ballet Opera House had his glasses off, and was wiping tears from his eyes with the back of his hand.

 Such was the devastating, emotionally shattering impact of Shu-Ying Li’s remarkable performance as the doomed Cio-Cio San in Florida Grand Opera’s handsome, evocative production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, which opened last night at the Adrienne Arsht Center.

 Like all popular operas, Puccini’s tragic romantic fable has been presented so often and so inconsistently that one is resigned to taking what pleasures can be had in Puccini’s music.

 One was wholly unprepared for the vocal gleam, detailed characterization, and riveting dramatic intensity of the young Chinese soprano, whose performance was so complete and captivating it will spoil audience members for future Butterflys for years to come.

 Cio-Cio San is a signature role for Li, one that many saw last year in a televised New York City Opera performance on Live from Lincoln Center. Her voice is a bit light for the part, yet Li makes up the balance with a pure, creamy timbre and immaculate technique. The soprano hit all the vocal peaks she needed to, with radiant singing in the love duet, and delivering a glorious, deeply felt Un bel di.

 Most memorable was the depth and rounded  characterization she brought to the young geisha whose life is destroyed by the caddish American naval officer Pinkerton. Li’s delicacy of movement and gestures for once, gave us a soprano who was credible as a 15-year-old Japanese bride. She also brought out the charm and humor of Butterfly more than most, with a vivid vocal impersonation of a divorce-court judge in the Act 2 scene with Sharpless.

 Li rose to the opera’s mounting tragedy with unerring dramatic skill, reacting as if shot when asked what she would do if her lover never returned. The final scene was harrowing with Li bringing a reserve of vocal power and emotional intensity to Butterfly’s death.  (NOTE: Li is alternating with Maria Kanyova in the title role during these performances.)

 Consistent casting has not been the hallmark of this company over the last decade, but with this production, FGO has secured a mostly excellent lineup to back their wonderful soprano.

 Katharine Goeldner was a superb Suzuki, attentive and credible, her attractive mezzo blending pleasingly with Li in the Act 2 duet. Jake Gardner remains a first-rate Sharpless, bringing a resonant bass-baritone, unstuffy dignity and sensitivity to the American consul.

 The only variable was Arturo Chacon-Cruz as Pinkerton. The Mexican tenor’s instrument is decidedly small for the part, and he couldn’t quite summon up the weight and expansive impact to ride the love duet’s climax.

 Still, Chacon-Cruz made up for the middleweight voice with worthy acting, bringing the requisite swagger and charm to Pinkerton, as well a sense of stricken remorse to the devastation his selfish actions have wrought,  with an impassioned Addio, fiorito asil.

 Of the rest of the cast, Jeffrey Halili provided a vividly drawn portrait of the unctuous marriage broker Goro, Sidney Outlaw was a worthy Yamadori, Carlos Monzon a barely serviceable Bonze, and Kate Mangiameli, a too-present Kate Pinkerton.

 Director Bernard Uzan must be lauded for drawing such natural and affecting performances from his cast. The only oddities were Pinkerton’s bizarre and unmusical twirling of Butterfly at the conclusion of the duet and the over-prominence of an overemotional Kate Pinkerton, including the distraction of having her visibly crying during the Act 2 trio.

 Uzan is living dangerously in this production by featuring the child actor who portrays Butterfly’s silent son in the action so prominently, but except for some initial staring out at the house, the pint-size Peter Alan hit his marks like a seasoned pro.

 After the jarringly under-rehearsed opening night of Le nozze di Figaro last month, the company spent the time to get most things right, with Butterfly. There were few glitches, apart from one major lapse in Butterfly’s delayed entrance with the child coming several seconds late and behind the music.

 Roberto Oswald’s towering Minimalist unit set has served the company well for many years and remains a striking design of a Japanese home, enhanced by Gordon W. Olson’s beautiful lighting with deep reds and blues. The chorus, under John Keene’s direction was back on its game, singing securely and evocatively with the women making a worthy group of geishas.

 Stewart Robertson has always displayed a strong connection with this opera, and, in his final appearance as Florida Grand Opera’s music director, the Scottish conductor delivered one of his best podium outings in recent years. Robertson drew out the lyricism sensitively and underlined Puccini’s many scoring felicities, eliciting largely inspired and polished playing from the orchestra.

 Puccini’s Madama Butterfly runs through May 9 at the Arsht Center and May 14 and 16 at the  Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale with two pairs of principals alternating in the roles of Cio-Cio San and Pinkerton.  800-741-1010; www.fgo.org

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4 Responses to “Chinese soprano is unforgettable in Florida Grand Opera’s shattering “Butterfly””

  1. Posted Apr 27, 2009 at 3:44 pm by Carolyn Lindgren

    I attended the opening Sat night and the production was absolutely enthralling. I, along with those around me were feeling Butterfly’s pain! with several weeping. I think the critique was right on. If all the opera’s at FGO were like this performance, tickets would be very scarce.

  2. Posted Apr 28, 2009 at 12:59 pm by Jenny

    Opening night was more than breathtaking! “Butterfly’s” voice was like crystal, the set was stunning, and the lighting brought my emotions over the edge. Every detail, right down to little Trouble, was perfected and worked harmoniously to create an experience I’ll never forget!

  3. Posted Apr 28, 2009 at 1:59 pm by hubert harriman

    Has anyone heard the alternate cast and what is their verdict?

  4. Posted May 07, 2009 at 4:14 pm by John

    I just attended the Sunday (5/2) performance and by the end I was also on the verge of tears. Shu-Ying Li was spectacular in capturing all the manerisms of a Geisha with great skill and grace. Supporting cast was solid. This is by far the best production by FGO in the past two years.

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