“Madama Butterfly” stays aloft in new Florida Grand Opera production

By Lawrence Budmen

Sandra Lopez as Cio-Cio San, Grant Youngblood as Sharpless, and Joshua Guerrero as Lt. Pinkerton in Florida Grand Opera’s “Madama Butterfly.” Photo: Daniel Azoulay

Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly retains a special place in the hearts of opera lovers. Since its premiere at Milan’s La Scala in 1904, the tale of a teen-aged geisha betrayed by an American naval officer remains a deeply moving fusion of impassioned lyricism and melodrama. Florida Grand Opera’s new production of this operatic evergreen, which opened on Saturday night at the Arsht Center, manages to deliver much of the score’s surging theatricality, despite an uneven performance by the protagonist. 

Some of this presentation’s strongest musical assets came from the pit. Conductor Ramón Tebar makes Puccini’s memorable melodies and flowing orchestral writing really sing while displaying an unerring sense of dramatic pacing. Tebar commanded nuanced playing, drawing richly focused tone from all sections of the excellent orchestra. He built the Intermezzo between acts II and III to symphonic proportions, spotlighting huge contrasts of timbral color and texture from the ensemble. In the Humming Chorus, Tebar integrated the off-stage voices with the spare instrumentation to magical effect. The wonderful portamento he coaxed from the strings were only one of numerous orchestral details deftly highlighted. 

In the pivotal role of 15-year-old Cio-Cio San is Sandra Lopez, a University of Miami graduate who has sung at the Metropolitan Opera and leading European houses. Lopez got off to a rocky start with the heroine’s entrance aria, which occupies the highest soprano register. Many sopranos have problems surmounting it and Lopez was no exception. 

Once past that initial vocal challenge, she improved significantly, bringing a sense of playful naivete to the marriage scene. Lopez’s light lyric soprano supports attractive middle and lower registers where much of Puccini’s discourse rests. Under pressure, however, Lopez’s high range can turn edgy. “Un bel di” emerged as choppy and underpowered rather than a refulgent declaration of faith in her husband’s return. Despite a few bravos, the famous aria did not receive a prolonged ovation.

In her scene with the American consul Sharpless, Lopez was poignant, bringing soaring lines to Cio-Cio San’s refusal to believe the faithlessness of her beloved, Lieutenant Pinkerton. As the story turned tragic, with the young heroine being asked to give up her child to the lieutenant and his American wife, Lopez engendered needed pathos. Some of her best singing came in the final scenes as she bade farewell to her child and faithful servant Suzuki before committing suicide. In a bold dramatic gesture, she hesitated stabbing herself as she heard Pinkerton’s voice calling “butterfly” outside, the conclusion appropriately affecting.

Joshua Guerrero played Pinkerton as a selfish cad, only realizing the pain he has caused when it is too late. While his voice was not well blended with Lopez’s in the Act I love duet, Guerrero’s sizable tenor has authentic ring and his soft notes are suavely melting. “Amore o grillo” was crisply phrased and he spun Pinkerton’s farewell aria “Addio fiorito asil” with throbbing passion.

Grant Youngblood was an elderly and dignified Sharpless, portraying a decent man caught between duty and compassion for the heroine’s anguish. A veteran Verdi baritone. Youngblood’s full, dark vocal compass gave the consul greater musical weight. Stephany Peña brought a finely textured mezzo and strength to the sympathetic Suzuki. Peña and Lopez resounded beautifully in duet as the stage was strewn with flowers at the sight of Pinkerton’s ship arriving in Nagasaki harbor. 

Supporting roles were all strongly cast. As the scheming marriage broker Goro, Nicholas Nestorak avoided caricature, sporting an enlivening stage presence and agile character tenor. Rafael Porto’s firm bass exuded fire in The Bonze’s denunciation of Cio-Cio San for her conversion to Christianity. Nathan Matticks’ powerful baritone intoned the Imperial Commissioner’s proclamations. In warm baritonal lines, Michael Miller made the most of Prince Yamadori’s entreaties of marriage to the hapless Cio-Cio San. Shaina Martinez brought a well schooled soprano voice to Kate Pinkerton’s few lines. Katherine Kozak’s chorus was astutely balanced and exuberant as the wedding guests.

The picture postcard production from Sarasota Opera offered an attractive backdrop for E. Loren Meeker’s fluent staging in which the heroine’s child Trouble (engagingly played by Jake Hernandez) was unusually active. Allen Charles Klein’s effective costumes and Ken Yunker’s lighting aided in evoking the drama’s clash of cultures. While not a perfect realization of Puccini’s masterpiece, FGO’s version hits many of the right notes and provides an engrossing night of operatic theater. 

Florida Grand Opera repeats Madama Butterfly 8 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday and 2 p.m. Sunday, January 26 at the Arsht Center in Miami and 7:30 p.m. January 30 and February 1 at the Broward Center in Fort Lauderdale. Fgo.org; 800-741-1010

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to ““Madama Butterfly” stays aloft in new Florida Grand Opera production”

  1. Posted Jan 19, 2020 at 1:37 pm by jeb debb

    By far Tebar conducting was the best, the rest was just ok and Lopez small voice and terrible vibrato.

  2. Posted Jan 23, 2020 at 2:52 pm by Sergio Da Silva

    Tebar did a tremendous job, beautiful traversal of the score.
    But Lopez was a major letdown, uncontrollable wobble and a tiny voice, wrong voice for the role.
    She did sing at the MET but she was on 2005 and as Tebaldo in Verdi’s Don Carlo – a minor role, she hasn’t been invited back.

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Sun Jan 19, 2020
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