Teatro Verdi Trieste 2018-19 Season Review: Madama Butterfly

Alberto Triola Brings Traditional Japanese Authenticity To The Stage While Nikša Bareza Excels In The Pit.

By Jonathan Sutherland

In Gilbert and Sullivan’s 1881 operetta “Patience,” the Oscar Wilde parody character Reginald Bunthorne boasts “I do not care for all one sees – that’s Japanese.” At the end of the Victorian era, the Land of the Rising Sun was an object of immense curiosity all over Western Europe and it seemed no occidental nation was immune to the craze for kabuki and kimonos. Bella Italia in general and Puccini in particular were similarly beguiled by the exotic Far East.  “Madama Butterfly” was first performed at La Scala in 1904 and after some serious teething problems, quickly became a tear-jerker favorite with audiences from Buenos Aires to Budapest. Cio-Cio San’s charming cherry blossom-strewn casetta first appeared in Trieste in 1914 and has since undergone 20 reconstructions at the venerable Teatro Verdi. Conversely, the Wiener Staatsoper hasn’t had a new production since 1957 when Tsugouharu Foujita’s  pretty pastel-painted sets sent Fächer afluttering along the Ringstrasse.

Given sufficient silks and shōji screens, “Madama Butterfly” is not so difficult to stage, even if several famous Cio-Cio Sans in the past were not exactly plausible reincarnations of a petite 15-year-old Japanese geisha. Despite occasional attempts by revisionist regie theater directors to turn Nagasaki into Novosibirsk, most productions of late have remained relatively true to the tragedia giapponese penned by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. Admittedly Ferzan Özpetek’s blatantly erotic staging earlier this year in Naples was more “Decameron” than dainty and Alvis Hermanis’ production at La Scala in 2016 had so many blossoms on the stage, it was as if Cio-Cio San’s garden encompassed  a quarter of Kyushu.

Taking a Safer Path

Respected Italian Festival director Alberto Triola trod a mostly conservative path and opted for uncontroversial Japonaiserie inspired by Ukiyo-e woodblock prints with lots of shifting pastel shōji screens.  The lighting by Stefano Capra was impressive with excellent use of silhouettes and atmospheric shadings. Triola’s staging was not without its incongruities however. There are many textual references to indicate that Act two is set in Spring but scene designers Emanuele Genuizzi and Stefano Zullo had a veritable forest of red autumnal leaves falling into the stage. A pile of multi-colored origami petals raked into a corner looked more like preparations for an auturno bonfire than exuberant floral decorations to welcome home the duplicitous American sailor.  Further, given that Butterfly’s marriage to Pinkerton was consummated only three years before, there is no biological possibility that Dolore could be any more than a toddler. Not only was the unhappy moppet played by a strapping adolescent of at least 11, the child was obviously a girl which contradicts “il bimbo” in the libretto. Multiple orange floating lanterns at the end of Act one were so closely similar to Anthony Minghella’s definitive 2005 ENO production it could only be the case of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. Triola correctly restored the traditional act of jigai (female suicide by slashing the jugular with a nasty looking kaiken dagger) instead of the frequently inaccurate abdomen gauging act of Seppuku which historically was the sole preserve of Samurai warriors.

Butterfly employed three outrageously handsome young male servants who looked more like Armani fashion models in Milano than floor-walkers in Nagasaki’s Hamanmachi Mall. Exactly which retainer was “The Aromatic One” remained unclear.

There was nothing really remarkable about Sara Marucci’s costumes other than Goro’s natty brown bower hat which looked more like millinery from “Me and My Girl” than “The Mikado.”

Considering this was an exclusively occidental cast, the chorus of parenti, amici, cugini, amiche e marinai were obviously not particularly oriental in appearance. Each guest brought their own Sake shot glass, obviously in the expectation of some serious boozing at the wedding breakfast. The milk-punch remained untouched in the ice-box. Proficient vocalism exceeded the chorus’ unlikely appearance and the coro a bocca chiusa was sensitively sung with correct attention to the gentle dynamic modulations.

Bring the World To Life

Triola had the novel idea of zio Bonzo disrupting the wedding festivities by stomping down an aisle to the front of the auditorium as he bellowed “Cio-Cio-San! Abominazione!” and other less cordial greetings.  Fulvio Valenti  sang the ultimate party pooper with power and declamatory decibels which unnerved several members of the audience as much as the insulted bride and her intimidated relations.

Dario Giorgelè was an unusually youthful and attractive Principe Yamadori making Butterfly’s adamant disinterest almost unreasonable. There was a warm timbre to his vocalization and “Vi lascio il cuor pien di cordoglio” was elegantly phrased.  Pinkerton’s “vera sposa Americana” Kate was sung with restrained dignity by Silvia Verzier but lacked projection. Saverio Pugliese’s effeminate, gushy, fan-flapping Goro was far too high-camp with minimal vocal weight although diction was excellent.  The tenor was occasionally slightly behind the orchestra, notably in the presto parlando passage enumerating the guest list.

Sharpless was a portly, avuncular Alpine sort of chappy quietly moved by Butterfly’s plight but not nearly as censorious of Pinkerton’s caddish behaviour as one would want. Stefano Meo was vocally competent without being outstanding.  There was warmth to the voice despite a tendency to push in the higher tessitura such as “credulo cor.” Reading “Amico, cercherete quel bel fiore,” Meo paid much better attention to word coloring with a pleasing lightening of timbre on “fanciulla” but the top F and E-naturals on “Accogliete la proposta di quel ricco Yamadori” were again strained and pushed. Meo was at his best in the moving “Io so che alle sue pene” trio but overall intonation was more fuzzy than refined.

Compared to Elizabeth DeShong’s sensational Suzuki in Covent Garden last year, Laura Verrecchia was dramatically and vocally disappointing. “Sorride vostro Onore?” sounded more like a gossipy nonna than Butterfly’s devoted companion although “E Izaghi e Izanami” had the right sepulchral tone with potent D-naturals.  “Ma non s’è udito di straniero marito” was so shrill the individual notes were almost warped beyond recognition.  “Vespa! Rospo maledetto!” had serrated sting and the parallel thirds in the “Gettiamo a mani piene” duet were even, albeit without diminuendi or pianissimi.   There was real emotion in “Anime sante degli avi!” during the Act three trio and the subaqueous C-natural chest notes on “s’è spento il sol!” would have broken the heart of any Yankee vagabondo.

Not Truly Despicable

There is absolutely nothing to like about the callous and craven lieutenant of the USS Abraham Lincoln who was bizarrely called Sir Francis Blummy Pinkerton in the original 1904 version. The problem with Piero Pretti is that he doesn’t do despicable very well. He is simply too clean cut and agreeable. Vocally there wasn’t much nuance and most of the piano and diminuendo markings in “Dovunque al mondo” were ignored although there was a nice ping on “nave.” Curiously the fortissimo B-flat on “America forever” was released quickly without the usual showy fermata although the same note on “furor” was nicely held. Pretti took an original fermata on “sposa” before “Americana.”

“Sbarazzate all’istante” lacked sufficient volume to cover the heavy orchestration or the potency to dissuade the splenetic zio Bonzo.  “Bimba, bimba, non piangere” was more suited to the tenor’s relatively small but lyric timbre.  The orgasmic love duet lost impact because Pretti was too under-voiced and Butterfly far too belty although the interpolated top C-natural on “Vien” had plenty of punch.

Pretti was much more impressive in the Act three trio and “immutata è la stanza” was tastefully phrased. “Addio, fiorito asil” had conviction with an unexpected fermata on the first “son vil” and some ringing top A and B-flats.


Any performance of “Madama Butterfly” will succeed or fail depending on the title role. Regrettably Armenian soprano Liana Aleksanyan was never entirely convincing.  There was a certain unsubtle dramatic commitment, but vocally the many terrors of the part were never really tamed. The opening “Ancora un passo or via” had a matronly klang with an intrusive fast vibrato hardly indicative of a naive 15 year old.

“Quindici netti, netti “ sounded more like a veteran than a nubile ragazza. The first top B-flat on “Ove” was firm but the following A-flat on “s’accoglie” noticeably under pitch. Unlike Moffo, de los Angeles or especially Callas who could lighten the voice to create a young girl’s color, Aleksanyan had a monochrome timbre which was generally heavy with a tendency to spread.

The famous “Un bel dì vedremo” aria was attacked so violently it could have been Gioconda’s “Suicidio!” The marking is pianissimo but Aleksanyan was a vocal canon blast with no contrast at all between the opening articulation and its fortissimo repeat on “morir al primo incontro”.  There was more poetry in the clarinet obbligato and concluding orchestral coda. Butterfly’s climatic B-flat on “l’aspetto” was almost accurate but the intonation still tended to oscillate, as did the same note on “vo’ troncar.” “Non lo rammento?” was sensitively delivered with better word coloring but “Ah! m’ha scordata?” was more shrieked than sung. The G-sharp on “porterà” just before the real canon shot was much more secure although the top B-flat fermata at the end of “Gettiamo a mani piene” tentative.

“Dormi, amor mio” revealed that Aleksanyan has a piano technique which unfortunately was too seldom utilized. There was a harsh edge to the A-natural on “Muor Butterfly” but “Amore, addio, addio!” would have brought tears to even bitter old Bonzo.

Highlight Of the Night

The highlight of the performance was the conducting of octogenarian Croatian maestro Nikša Bareza. Pacing was often more on the peppy Pappano side than von Karajan’s intensely broad readings but the frenetic opening fugal bars cleverly captured the cultural chaos to follow. The change to a tempo before Sharpless’ “O amico fortunato!” needed slightly more breadth although the unexpected rallentando at “Badate, attenti a me!” was meticulously controlled.  Flutes were particularly pristine in the chirpy staccato semiquavers underlying Pinkerton and Sharpless’ whisky swilling but should have been more subtle in the staccato accompaniment to the Coro a bocca chiusa. It was pleasing to hear the correct campanile and tam-tam giapponese in the lively percussion section – instruments not so common so far west of Sodegaura. Their semi-tone chiming in the sunrise orchestral interlude was especially effective. Strings were silky seductive and their articulation of the love motif was ravishing albeit not quite as pianissimo as marked.

There was luscious playing from first violins in the dolce cantando opening of “viene la sera” and the orchestral passage after Yamadori’s departure was luxuriant. Solo first violin under “Vogliatemi bene” was eloquently lyrical. The fortissimi tutte after “Ah! m’ha scordata?” and “Ei torna e m’ama!” were terremoti to flatten all of Nagasaki whilst the recapitulation of the “Un bel dì” melody under Butterfly’s “il vessillo americano delle stele” had much more cantibile than when originally sung.

The introduction to Act three is a mini tone-poem in itself and the expansive largo theme immediately preceding the Americans’ re-entry was deeply moving. Bareza introduced an almost unbearably long silence just before Butterfly’s “Vespa! voglio che tu risponda” which enforced the suspense of the unfolding tragedy. The pounding timpani after “te lo comando” were as violent as a death rattle itself.

Fedele D’Amico described the score of “Madama Butterfly” as a “conversation symphony” and Bareza brought out every subtle facet of the fascinating, kaleidoscopic oriental partitura. There might have been vocal shortcomings on the stage but there was Reiwa era pre-eminence in the pit. One suspects even Reginald Bunthorne would have become a committed shinnichi as a result.


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