Lithuanian National Opera 2018-19 Review: Madama Butterfly

LNO Brings Minghella’s Production from Hell to Heaven

By Polina Lyapustina

Writing a review can be a rather unique experience. Often we make a statement about a performance, expecting it to blanket an entire run of shows. After the first performance or second, we might be tempted to make the claim that either it was a mediocre performance with “decent” singers or we were impressed by the evening that exceeded any or all expectations; these opinions then extend to what we can expect from the remaining shows of said opera.

But the truth of the matter is that generalizations such as those are completely off the mark. In fact, no theatrical performance can really fit into either of those notions, because every performance is its own thing, built up completely at the very moment it takes place by the very people who are on and behind the stage and in the pit right now.

I will remember my first “Madama Butterfly” this January forever, though I wish I could forget. The theatre quite suddenly invited me to a special event for press, for the “Butterfly” season premiere.

The orchestra was out of tune, conductor lost the line a few times in the first act, Pinkerton was a dramatic tenor; Butterfly had a voice so powerful and dark that I would rather believe she would take over the world than commit suicide; Suzuki seemed younger and more naive than Cio Cio San. The light couldn’t follow its path; the chorus movements were broken. Need more? That was a horrible experience, that seemed very hard to overcome.

I felt such shame of what Lithuanian National Opera did with a fantastic Minghella’s production, which was staged stunningly at the ENO and the Met for years. A little known fact: LNO staged this production in 2005-2006 season right after its premiere in London, a season earlier than Metropolitan Opera. And since, there were only four seasons without “Butterfly” in Vilnius.

The spring came and brought  another run of Puccini’s masterwork staged at the Lithuanian National Opera. And once I found crucial cast changes, including mezzo-soprano Jovita Vaškevičiūtė as Suzuki and Adam Diegel as Pinkerton, I decided to take a risk.

Who Found a Butterfly Inside

Soprano Sandra Janušaitė remained my biggest fear. Despite being a great singer, she now has a powerful spinto soprano, which was way too low and deep for the January performances. She also performed “Turandot” in Robert Wilson’s production at the beginning of March, and this role seemed to fit her soprano better.

But once she appeared on stage, all my concerns disappeared. She looked so small, so excited, moving in an absolutely girlish way. Then she started to sing. I could not believe my ears as well as my experience, that anyone, who performed “Turandot” just three weeks ago, could reach such pure and consistent high notes so effortlessly.

She showed a beautiful range in the long duet scene at the end of the first act, her voice matching tenor perfectly. They blended in a song of love, never interrupting or overcoming each other.

Over the course of the show, she was developed her vocal expression of maturity and by the second act, she showed up not as a kid, but a young woman overwhelmed by her hopes. She was older, but her curiosity and courage were still inside.

By “Ah! M’ha scordata?” her voice pushed a bit and the last transformation began. There were such lively and complex emotions between mother and child in this scene. I always found an idea of using a bunraku-style puppet a good solution to show a two-year-old kid, but how the emotional engagement of the scene must come from soprano. Not because a doll has no voice, but because Butterfly shares her voice as she shares her destiny with her son.

In the third act, we saw the ultimate personality, which was developed by exhausted waiting with no hope. Janušaitė was sensitive to any rustle, ready to break for any reason. And the acting in this act could be blurry, but that night we could feel the Butterfly’s decision in her every action. All of these was perfectly shown by the soprano, both vocally and in her acting.

The Perks of Being Tall And Handsome

Adam Diegel is one of the most experienced Pinkertons in the US. And what I noticed first about him was not his bright and shimmering lyric tenor (which was just perfect for Pinkerton), but how good his tall and young he looked alongside the tiny Sandra Janušaitė, who was looking up to him. It made for a convincing dynamic in the opera.

The tenor dominated in the first act, his high notes ringing clearly and strongly. He seemed to know all the pitfalls to avoid and definitely sounded too good for his supporters, waiting for his bride to come.
His rendition was so involved in love duet, framing his little Butterfly in his arms, changing so naturally from a man in love to a playboy and back.

His interpretation of “Addio, fiorito asil” was just perfect. With flowers in shaking hands, he sang it with all his heart. His legatos were powerful and clean. That was a rare performance of this aria when we could see Pinkerton not only regret his actions deeply, but realize how weak and unworthy he is in his life.

A Faithful Companion

Mezzo-soprano Jovita Vaškevičiūtė was the main reason to give this production second chance. I knew her voice as a powerful and agile instrument, but I never expected such a wide vocal range being performed in a moment. She was confident with her high notes, and showcased the darkest tones in crucial moments. She has this special ability to combine vocal weight with delicacy, that could penetrate emotionally.

The duets with Cio Cio San were the climaxes of the performance as the two created the strongest chemistry on stage, leaving Pinkerton behind. Relentless care and external understanding of what is happening were accepted with gratitude and paid by unlimited trust. Every touch by Suzuki gave Butterfly strength, the gentle and deep mezzo voice providing tremendous support for the soprano’s high notes.

There was inexhaustible energy in her voice, which made her dominate in the trio with Pinkerton and Sharpless, both vocally and emotionally.

Back to Reality

However, the supporting singers reminded me of a glaring inconsistency in local opera houses. It seemed they were performing to highlight how perfect today’s leading cast was.

Dainius Stumbras was too lacking in vocal sharpness as Sharpless. His sound vanished in every duet with Pinkerton, and once Suzuki joined them at the third act, he became completely invisible.

Rafailas Karpis performed a credible Gogo, but his acting surpassed his singing. Liudas Mikalauskas made a successful debut as Bonza, effortlessly putting some pressure on Butterfly with his agile bass.

I was rather critical of the maestro in January, so this time I could feel almost safe. Maestro Staškus didn’t forgotten any notes, and there were just a couple of moments when his tempi seemed to argue with tenor, who was absolutely correct. But mostly the conductor remained imperceptible, which is definitely not a compliment, but better than it was previously.

I guess, there likely have been bad performances of this production at the Met and ENO too, but it’s quite difficult for it to match what was undeniably the worst performance of an opera I have seen in my life. What is most fascinating however is that three months later, I witnessed what was one of the greatest of the same production of the same opera.


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