Thursday, May 28, 2009

Two Butterflies

Madama Butterfly is incredibly sad. It is heart-breakingly, tragically, cosmically sad. It meets the awe and terror quotient Aristotle described as intrinsic to tragedy. Their collision leads to the sublime, the direct experience of the mystery and majesty of the universe.

In great tragedy everything moves like clockwork, inexorably, to the catastrophe that climaxes the action and the rips open the seams of the world. There is nothing extraneous; each moment, each beat, leads another step closer to the unthinkable. And even though we, like the Greek audiences, know what is going to happen, the brilliance of the composer seduces us into believing in the changes the characters go through on the path of annihilation. We know. They don't. They tender hopes and dreams right up to the very end. This produces some mighty wondrous music.

The orchestra is not an accompaniment. Puccini learned a lot from Wagner. His orchestra is huge, and can create a mighty roar, just as it can sigh and whisper and croon delicately. At Fenice the exposed pit is roomy and when the orchestra fills the auditorium at full blast, it is an awesome and terrible thing for any singer to have to sing over. It takes special singers, spinto, "pushed," to soar over the orchestral climaxes and also have the restraint and musicality to deal with the countless tender moments, delicately scored and written to be sung softly.

I love Butterfly and was happy to see it in lineup this year, but a string of poor productions dampened my hopes for anything memorable. I was also dismayed to realize that my subscription, which is supposed to have only the "A" casts, in this case had the "B" cast. There was nothing I could do about it.

But the world of opera is peculiar, and one of the things all opera lovers dream about is the night the young singer you've never heard of blows the lid off the place.

Oksana Dyka is a 31-year-old Ukrainian soprano; she is svelte and attractive and is a commanding presence onstage. She has a large silvery voice that is so spinto it screams Turandot and beyond. The night belonged to her and to the conductor, Nicola Luisotti, who becomes the Music Director of the San Francisco Opera in September. Maestro Luisotti inspired the orchestra to a stunningly detailed rendering of the score, from the fading whisper of the humming chorus to the brutal and thunderous climaxes.

Whatever the orchestra did, Oksana's voice rode the crest like the Silver Surfer, ringing out true and clear. The same was not true for her Pinkerton. When the orchestra murmured softly, you heard his pretty tenor voice. But when the orchestra surged to full tilt, he was lost in the shuffle. My seat for this performance was my usual seat, platea, sixth row, center aisle. It wasn't a question of bad placement. Of the entire cast, only Cio-Cio San had the horsepower to always be heard distinctly.

That whetted my curiosity to hear the "A" cast, and so I bought a twenty-euro ticket for a "scarsa visibilita" seat in the loggione, high at the top of the theater. From there you see how shallow the platea is and how much floor space the pit takes up. Fenice is small, but not as small as it seems. The auditorium itself, the sound box, is over six floors high and shaped like a horseshoe. The open pit is fully exposed, and in that space the orchestra creates either a cushion or a wall of sound depending on the moment.

My loggione seat is in the front row but you really can't see anything. I am as close to the ceiling as you can get. I can almost touch the sea maidens buoyed on the ceiling cornices, a gold baroque froth the late lamented Stuart Miller called "snail trails." But I saw the production last night, from the best possible viewpoint so it really doesn't matter that tonight all I can see is the horseshoe of boxes in which the usual excessive amount of picture-taking takes place before the houselights go down.

My seat is also far forward, toward the stage. I have a magnificent view of the orchestra below although I can only occasionally see the singers. What impressed most from this perch is how well I can hear various solo instruments warming up in the pit, a single trombone, a lone oboe, a few strings. Their sound is immediate and clear and present despite the ambient noise in the hall as people takes their seats.

The bustling fughetto that opens the score is brisk and clean. People around me are leaning over the guardrail to see what I already know. The production is virtually non-existent: a frame of giant shoji screens pushed back and forth for effect, a 70s style disco floor that lights up in mood colors. Another low-budget minimalist vision: no Nagasaki, no cherry blossoms, no hair ornaments or embroidered kimonos. The costumes are pleasant and simple, like a J. Jill catalog. What this kind of production needs is stellar performance. The music is all that matters.

Butterly makes a long entrance from off-stage. The music of her entrance, "Ancora un passo or via," is wraithlike, in high voices from a great distance growing closer. In this production, Cio-Cio San and her wedding party are raised up slowly to the level of the stage on a giant elevator. The more they are exposed, the brighter and closer the voices.

The night before, I could tell from the first notes of Butterfly's entrance that this was not going to be ordinary. Oksana's voice, even offstage, was immediate and lovely. As she stepped forward, she sang the optional high note that is so spellbindingly beautiful when done properly. Oksana was a bit loud on it, but that is a quibble: it is ethereal and spot on gorgeous. Opera at its best.

From the loggione I listened as the "A" cast Butterfly, Micaela Carosi, made the same entrance. The voice was pretty, but harder to hear, and when she opted out of the optional high note, she pretty much lost me for the night. It is one of my favorite moments in all opera... She has a pretty voice with a tremulous vibrato that thrills some and leaves others cold. It doesn't do much for me, but I admired her beautiful legato lines. By the second act she confronted the orchestra's full roar; she was there, but not forward, not soaring over it, as Oksana had done.

There was not much difference, to my ear, between the "A" and "B" Pinkerton, nice voices but underpowered for the part, not spinto enough to be heard in the big moments. Both casts were rather interchangeable, except that the "A" Suzuki made the the flower duet very special.

Micaela Carosi was vocally convincing, her performance impassioned, and I could appreciate her artistry. But she did not knock my socks off, the way Oksana Dyka did. Comparing the two Butterflies is like comparing an ivory-handled dagger to a lightsaber. When Oksana sang either of her big arias, and at all her peak dramatic moments, and in the ensembles, you could clearly hear every nuance of her vocal line. Her tone remained beautiful even when pushed high over the clamoring orchestra. And when the orchestra died down you could hear clearly how her voice was even from the bottom all the way to the floated high d-flat of her entrance.

When she sang, it was opera as it should be; you ceased to worry if she could do it. Trusting her, you could relax and be carried away by what she did. She is not the ideal Butterfly, but she was a brilliant Butterfly. Some day she'll discover her inner Sieglinde, and when she does, I want to be there.

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