Teatro Real 2023-24 Review: Madama Butterfly (Cast C)

Damiano Michieletto’s Production Proves His Powerful Genius & Aleksandra Kurzak Gives a Spectacular Performance

By Mauricio Villa
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(***Trigger warning based on topics of suicide and violence towards women)

Madrid’s Teatro Real closes its season with an astonishing number of 19 performances with four different casts of Puccini’s tragic tale: “Madama Butterfly.” Nicola Luisotti was in charge of the Orchestra of Teatro Real for most of the performances, and the excellent Italian stage director Damiano Michieletto signed the production.

Michieletto is probably the most popular and demanded stage directors now days. Just a few months back he had two major new productions during the same period: Massenet’s “Don Quichotte” at the Paris Opera and Bizet’s “Carmen” at the ROH in London. Michieletto’s clever and meaningful productions always bring the action closer to modern times, giving an actual vision and therefore bringing the opera closer to new audiences. He always takes his approach further, presenting his own vision with respect for the libretto and the score.

In “Madama Butterfly” Michieletto abandons all the exoticism this piece might have, like the hills over Nagasaki, Cherry trees and Kimonos. Instead, he sets the action in an Oriental suburban neighborhood. The stage is full of big billboards and neon advertisements. Most of them announcing “girls”/prostitutes, written in three languages: Japanese, Chinese and Thai. He focuses on the exploitation of women, sex-tourism and poverty. It’s a very cruel realistic approach. Butterfly’s house is a rectangular glass enclosure where oriental prostitutes are showing themselves like merchant in a window display when the curtain rises up. The ambient is very sordid. Butterfly is a young girl who has been sold and struggles to survive in poverty when her American “husband” abandons her. But Michieletto knows how to create beautiful lyrical moments too like the “boca Chiusa” chorus where the extras very slowly filled the inside of Butterfly’s place with paper boats lit by candlelight. It was a very beautiful effect. On the other hand, he creates great impact like when Butterfly shoots herself in the head using Goro’s gun, rather than killing herself with the sword of her ancestors.

Michieletto is such a genius, especially in how he manages Butterfly’s outfit during the second and third act, which is a pink “Hello Kitty” T-shirt and jeans with sequined patterns. This costume does not distract or seem ridiculous, instead it symbolizes the innocence of the girls. Butterfly is in this sordid world where women are objects to be buy. He directs everything. He doesn’t leave gaps and pays special attention to every single character from the extras and chorus, to small roles like Pinkerton’s wife which is portrayed as a rich arrogant blond woman who doesn’t hesitate in throwing money to Butterfly as if she could buy her child. It is especially dramatic when the child runs to the body of his dead mother (Butterfly) and tries to hold her while Pinkerton grabs him and takes him away. Michieletto proves once more why he is one of the most talented and popular directors today.

Aleksandra Kurzak’s Illuminating Butterfly

Aleksandra Kurzak is an incredible Butterfly. Even from the beginning of her entrance aria,”Ancora un passo or via,” she proved how great her performance was going to be. Her Bel-canto background allowed her to sing soaring legato lines and a crystalline high B♭and D♭ in pianissimi during her entrance aria. Her voice developed further into a true lyric coloratura. Her middle register darkened, becoming wider and gaining projection. Her timbre is warm and beautiful. She has the ideal voice for this role. I only missed the use of vocal colors to vocally portray a 15 year-old-girl. In this way, her voice sounded too mature and dark in the first act. Nevertheless, she paid attention to every accent and dynamic, creating strong effective moments like when she responds “Morto” in a terrified whisper, or the passionate line with a B♭ in “Amore mio.” Nevertheless, Michieletto might have asked the soprano to portray a more mature girl, who has been living in poverty with her mother who has to sell her body to survive. But even with this interpretation, Butterfly is infatuated with Pinkerton, or with what he means: a life in America far from this life of poverty. In other words, freedom. Kurzak was visibly affected as Butterfly when she was cursed and abandoned by her family and friends, but at the same time she sang a passionate and lyrical love duet, which coronated with a final long sustained top ringing high C.

But it is in the second act where the soprano must show all her dramatic potential. Kurzak sang a beautiful “Un bel di vedremo” with soaring mezza voce in the opening lines, strong middle register in “Per non morire al primo incontro” and a secure climatic B♭. It is in the scene with Sharpless where Kurzak exploits all her dramatic resources. She sounded immensely sorrowful in “non mi rammenta più!”, and very determined and drastic in “Due cose potrei far” singing with abandonment and immense pain. Her voice sounded strong and even angry in “Ah! m’ha scordata…E questo?”. But she went back to deep pain and pathos in the interpretation of her aria “Che tua madre…” where she proved her strong middle register, as this piece is written mostly inside the stave, and her vocal flexibility for singing most of the piece is with resonant low sections, but then raising dramatically at the end to two perfect B♭’s, and it is very hard to reach those high notes when the rest of the aria demands dramatic singing in the middle and lower parts of the voice. And there is still a lot to sing. Her interpretation of the line “una nave da guerra?” was hair rising, as Butterfly and Suzuki finally see Pinkerton’s ship at the port. Her exit from the scene at the beginning of the third act was in a whispering mezza voce, that included a soaring pianissimo B natural in “ed io col mio dolor”. She was in shock while singing “forse potrei cader morta sull’attimo” and extremely moving and dramatic in her final aria “ Tu, tu, tu piccolo iddio…” sang with a fresh voice after a long night of singing and delivering strong dramatic A naturals as she farewells her child before killing herself.

Kurzak’s portrayal and personification of the role was outstanding, delineating the big dramatic arch that the character goes through from the emotion of the wedding, the conviction of Pinkerton’s return, the tremendous disappointment when Sharpless informs her that he might not come back, to the final abandonment when everything she has lived and fought for collapses. She abandoned herself to the final rendition of her own child and her subsequent suicide.

More Cast Highlights

Leonardo Capalbo, as Pinkerton, did not have an optimal night. He has a dark sound but whenever he had to sing above the passagio, the sound came off as forced, strained and sometimes unstable. Everything was delivered with a similar forte tone and you could see the physical effort that it took for him to emit his first B♭ in “America forever;” his preceding line “scompligli nave or meggi, alberatura” which demands phrasing up to several A naturals, also showed signs of a forced and uncomfortable sound. While watching the performance I was wondering how he would deliver the high C that concludes the duet in the first act –  ultimately, he didn’t sing it, and instead opted for the lower line that Puccini wrote. I have to say that the high C is optional,“oppure,” but it is usually sung by tenors to enhance the climax. The tenor doesn’t appear again until the third act where he has a small Terzetto with Sharpless and Suzuki and his aria “Addio, fiorito asil.” Capalbo’s appearance in Act three repeated the same pattern: pushed high notes, physical effort in voice production and irregular sound. I have never seen Capalbo before and therefore I doubt he was feeling 100 percent.

Sharpless was portrayed by the Spanish baritone Luis Cansino. He has a voice of modest volume and marked vibrato, but the voice carries well as he has great projection. As Suzuki’s role, interpreted by Gemma Coma-Alabert, their parts play a very important role in the development of the story, but her vocal interventions are short and with no solo parts. Coma-Alabert possess a strong rotund sound, showing her dramatic abilities in the first scene of the second act with Butterfly or the final scene, as well as beautiful lyricism and mezza voce in the flower duet with Butterfly at the end of the second act.

It’s a luxury to have a tenor like Moisés Marín, who debuted the role of Rossini’s Pirro- a long difficult baritenor role last season, in the role of Goro. Marín has a dark timbre with great projection. His voice was quite present in the few interventions that this secondary role has. It does not go higher than G so it requires the strong middle register that Marín possess. He made a convincing portrayal of the pimp drug addict that Michieletto’s production demands.

Musical Highlights

The performance on the 5th of July was conducted by Spanish conductor Luis Miguel Méndez who opted for slow tempi. For example, Butterfly’s entrance sounded extremely slow, demanding a strong breath technique from the soprano, which Kurzak succeeded in this task. He was very specific with the timbre details that this score has, impregnating the orchestra with Puccini’s oriental flavor. The voices and the orchestra sounded perfectly balanced and the voices could be heard at all times (something rarely common today). Overall, the Orchestra and Chorus of Teatro Real sounded strong and bright.

A new dramatic approach to “Madama Butterfly” by the excellent stage director Damiano Michieletto with Aleksandra Kurzak in the titular role, proving that she is one of the best Butterfly’s today.


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