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THE VOICE | The Proof in the Pudding is Puccini

By Neil Crory on October 14, 2014

If one wants proof that music has the power to seduce, one need only turn to the works of Giacomo Puccini to be totally moonstruck. His music has uncanny powers of persuasion, even manipulation. With melodies that linger long in one’s memory, harmonies that challenge convention, and orchestration that envelops one in its sensuality; one is powerless to resist. When combined, these qualities weave a spider’s web of emotional entrapment. Do I feel that my senses are being manipulated? Yes. Do I mind? Not in the least. Tears still moisten these cynical eyes each time Tosca leaps off the parapet of Castel Sant’Angelo; or Liù plunges a dagger into her heaving breast.

Unfortunately, opening night of the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly was a somewhat uneven affair. Last seen in 2009, this revival was directed by the indefatigable Brian Macdonald; while Susan Benson provided the simple, unfussy single unit set. Benson also populated the stage with her hand-painted costumes. The overall colour palette was muted, reminiscent of faded colourized black and white photographs.

The 49-year-old American soprano Patricia Racette – in her company debut – seemed to be having an off night. In the first act her voice was plagued by a disfiguring beat; while in Act II her account of Butterfly’s aria, “Un bel di”, was disturbingly flat throughout. It was only in Act III, when the drama took fire that things began to gel. Racette – a talented actress – has made a specialty of Butterfly since her first outing in the role in 1988 (also her professional debut). Based upon other productions, she is clearly capable of much more (see the DVD of Racette in the splendid Butterfly from the Met on their HD series).

Racette was partnered by Italian tenor, Stefano Secco, who has sung the role of the naval officer B. F. Pinkerton in the USA and throughout Europe. While he sings the role with ease, there is a generic quality to his performance, which is tiresome, and a timbre that borders on bland. Nor does it ring with much Italianate fervour. Unlike Racette, Secco provided little insight into his role, walking through the part with impunity. Granted, Puccini paints Pinkerton in sympathetic colours, but there is no disguising the fact that he is a cocky, cowardly rake. When he brags to Sharpless that he “drops his anchor at random” we know exactly what he means. There is clearly more to this character than is usually portrayed.

The role of Suzuki, Butterfly’s servant and companion, is often under cast. While designated by the composer as a mezzo-soprano part, the role certainly benefits by using a mezzo with a particularly robust lower end. What a pleasure to hear Elizabeth DeShong’s sonorous contralto participating in the drama. Hers is a voice of depth and substance.

The American baritone, and Metropolitan Opera stalwart, Dwayne Croft, sings the role of the U.S. Counsul, Sharpless. It is a somewhat thankless, two-dimensional part and can be difficult to make much of an impression. Croft, however, imbues his character with as much sympathy and compassion as is possible. The Goro of Julius Ahn was outstanding. Not only does this Korean-American sing well, he is an actor who moves well on stage, with ease and fluidity. Other notable members of the cast include tenor Clarence Frazer as an aristocratic Yamadori; and bass Robert Gleadow as The Bonze.

German conductor Patrick Lange, in his COC debut, proved to be quite a find. He has a firm sense of the opera’s architecture, holding his forces back until the full impact of the orchestra is needed. He also has that rare ability to sink into a particular phrase and to shape its arch or contour. Although there was a tendency occasionally to slow down, he basically kept the drama moving along.

Madama Butterfly is double cast (with Kelly Kaduce as Butterfly and Andrea Carè as Pinkerton) with performance running until October 31st.

Neil Crory


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