Despite the rough edges, Miami Lyric Opera’s “Butterfly” touches the heart

By David Fleshler

Daniella Carvalho performs the title role in Miami Lyric Opera's "Madama Butterfly."

The orchestra playing was often ragged, the sets low-budget, and the singing uneven. Yet Miami Lyric Opera’s production of Madama Butterfly delivered enough authentic Puccini pathos Saturday that there was sobbing in the audience by the second act.

Much of the credit goes to the soprano Daniella Carvalho, whose affecting performance as the teenage Japanese bride carried the production. Carvalho, who previously sang the role of Suor Angelica with the company, made Cio-Cio San’s impending fate all the more tragic with her portrayal of the girl’s bulletproof optimism that her American husband would return and her good-humored disdain for the Japanese traditions she thought she had left behind. Although her voice thinned out a bit toward the top, it was rich and warm in the middle. In the famous aria Un bel dí, what was most striking was not the big climax, although that was delivered with affecting power, but the softer moments as she fantasized about the day of Pinkerton’s return.

The opera company, founded by the retired Italian tenor Raffaele Cardone, gives opportunities for young singers to take leading roles. Saturday’s performance took place at the Gusman Center’s Olympia Theater in downtown Miami, a former silent movie palace built in 1926, whose plush, ornate interior provides a fine setting for opera. (It would be hard to imagine a phantom haunting the sleek, contemporary opera house at the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, but one would be right at home at Gusman.) The supertitles, whose malfunctions once provided a source of unintended comedy at Miami Lyric performances, seemed to work perfectly. The size of the audience was more than respectable, filling most of the hall. Sets were traditional, dominated by sliding Japanese doors and painted screens.

As Pinkerton, the American naval officer who establishes the gold standard for shallowness and spinelessness, Raymundo Antomarchi gave a performance that was stronger for acting than singing. He struck just the right note in his interactions with Cio-Cio San, looking at her with consumer detachment, as if she were a car he was thinking of buying. Vocally he was stronger toward the bottom than at the top, where his high notes sounded strained. In his early duet with Sharpless, Dovunque al mondo, he was unable to prevail over the sound of the orchestra. But he brought enough vocal power and luster to deliver a fine duet with Carvalho as they approached the marriage bed for the first time.

Another reason for the evening’s success was the performance of the baritone Graham Fandrei as Sharpless, the American consul in Nagasaki. He brought a rounded, superbly focused voice to the role, expressing a moral seriousness that contrasted with the frivolity of Pinkerton. His performance of the third-act aria Io so che sue dolore, in which he expresses the terrible pain that Cio-Cio San faces, was a moving and climactic passage that provided one of the opera’s great moments.

The orchestra, conducted by Jeff Eckstein, gave an uneven performance, turning in amateurish work one minute, and warm, richly colored tones the next. Bad intonation plagued the violins, and the strings overall couldn’t deliver at crucial points, such as the jagged, dramatic music that accompanies the patriarchal fury of Cio-Cio San’s uncle. Winds gave the strongest performance, bringing to life the exotic tones of Puccini’s score. Eckstein paced the performance well, leading the orchestra and singers in an unforced, natural manner through such great ensemble passages as Cio-Cio San’s first ascent up the hill to Pinkerton’s new house.

As Suzuki, Cio-Cio San’s maid, Lissette Jimenez gave competent support to Carvalho in their duos. As Goro, the sleazy marriage broker who brought Cio-Cio San to Pinkerton, Eduardo Valdes turned in a performance that was subtler than most, avoided the usual shuffling stock-character stereotypes that usually attend this role. Lee Vega was barely audible as Prince Yamadori. As Kate Pinkerton, Rebekah Diaz handled her small role well, exuding concern for Cio-Cio San. A particularly fine performance came from the bass Diego Baner, whose robust voice gave the Bonze, Cio-Cio San’s furious uncle, commanding power, making his brief appearance the showstopper it should be.

Miami Lyric Opera’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly repeats 4 p.m. Sunday at the Olympia Theater and July 7 and 8 at the Colony Theater in Miami Beach. For the July 8 performance, Alexis J. Park will sing the role of Cio-Cio San.

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Sun Jun 24, 2012
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