Whether for reasons of love or austerity one would be hard-pressed to say, but the Canadian Opera Company‘s 2014 presentation of Madama Butterfly (a tragic Italian opera based on a French play about American colonialism in Japan – and the human costs of it) is an item-for-item reprise of the 2009 version – the same set, costumes, and lighting. Only the players are different, which in the case of Patricia Racette as Butterfly makes the 2014 audience very very lucky, and in the case of Stefano Secco as Pinkerton…not so much. Overall, I found it quite uneven – marvelous when it was good, and clunky when it wasn’t.
Puccini, in general, is deeply emotional opera. There’s not a lot of business, not much to-and-fro – all three acts are set in one room, with a few characters coming in and out. There’s no sizzle to sell, only the steak, and so the steak must be sublime. I happened to see a comment on social media from superlative Toronto character actor Bruce Dow after the opening, which summed up the expectation: “It’s called ‘verismo’ for a reason – blood and guts, please.” Though the appellation verismo, an Italian designation referring to hyper-realistic dramatizations of daily life, is only sometimes applied to Madama Butterfly the point is well taken. In my opinion, this cast was also only sometimes verismo.
Racette, the extraordinary American soprano, as Cio-Cio San is the sort of singer that makes me think “this is what opera is supposed to sound like.” Her voice has such flexibility, and is so expressive, that it’s thrilling to listen to. Texturally, she’s like silk velvet on the ears – there’s no wrong direction, no roughness, no nap, just endless gorgeous texture and a sense of hedonistic pleasure, like it’s almost too good to listen to. Her duets with Suzuki, played by Elizabeth DeShong (who doesn’t get enough credit) in the second and third acts left me open-mouthed with delight. The energy and interplay between the two women is excellent, especially by opera standards.
Unfortunately, Stefano Secco left me cold – and the rest of the audience too, by the sound of things during the curtain call. DeShong and Dwayne Croft (playing Sharpless with wonderful, rich sound and an uprightness of carriage and manner I really admired) both waved to roars of approval while Secco seemed to slouch through tepid applause. Slouching and tepid both feel fairly apt as descriptions of his performance as Pinkerton, as well. Pinkerton, who marries Butterfly knowing full well that he’ll leave, promising to return when he has no intention of it, toasting his “real” wedding to his “real” future American bride with Sharpless on the day of his marriage to Butterfly is a cad of the highest order. He’s a scoundrel and an opportunist who thinks with his pants, but Secco plays his as a sort of nebbishy empty uniform who fidgets. A lot. I felt he was tremendously overmatched in this pairing.
I also missed Johannes Debus and his great command of the COC orchestra, I must say. Patrick Lange was fine, but I don’t think the orchestra quite trusted him, and it showed. And since I’m complaining, I was surprised at how many people bailed for the exit before the curtain call had even begun, as though the previous two-and-a-half hours of demanding live performance deserved no appreciation. I remained, and applauded, to the end as (almost all of) the cast deserved.
- Madama Butterfly plays at the Four Seasons Centre, 145 Queen W until October 31st with alternating casts.
- Tickets range in price from $35 to $239, with discounted tickets available for youth through the COC Opera Under 30 program.
- Tickets can be purchased online or by calling 416.363.8361
photo of Elizabeth DeShong, Patricia Racette, and Dwayne Croft by Michael Cooper