Watanabe's acting in 'Butterfly' soars beyond her singing

April 22, 1991|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

THE ARGUMENT of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" is the fidelity and courage of women and the superficiality and cowardice of men. The idea that women are strong and men weak is as ridiculous as its opposite. But the great strength and weakness of the current Baltimore Opera Company production of "Butterfly" -- which opened Saturday night at the Lyric Opera House -- is precisely that its women singers, particularly Butterfly, are superb and its men singers, most especially Pinkerton, are undistinguished.

Fortunately, this is an opera that can be carried by one singer. Yoko Watanabe was magnificent in the title role. Her singing, while not the best thing about her portrayal -- there was a little edginess on top -- was still terrific. She had the sweet girlish sound necessary for the role and sufficient weight when it was called for. Her "One Fine Day" justifiably brought the house down. It began ardently, continued with just the right amount of nervous anxiety and concluded with overwhelming longing.

But what was best about Watanabe was her acting. She brought out the character's naive vulnerability in Act I, her coquettishness and her maternal warmth in Act II, and her steely, tragic determination in the finale. It was a performance that made one think of how Maria Callas' performances were characterized: she began as a child, developed into a woman and mother, and finally grew to represent all women. When Watanabe cries, "Ah, he has forgotten me," one knows exactly what she is singing about. Watanabe was supported by a fine Suzuki, Yun Deng, a mezzo who sometimes sounded almost like a contralto.

The description in the program biography of tenor Richard Estes as today's "definitive" Pinkerton was as sincere as that of a used car salesman. As an actor, he did a fine job conveying the character's shallow good looks, his sexual adventurousness and his cowardice. But his voice simply did not have enough resonance for the role and often couldn't be heard alongside Watanabe's. Richard Fredricks was a relatively colorless Sharpless. In other roles, Joaquin Romaguera (Goro), Sun Yu (the Bonze) and Chai-Lun Yueh (Prince Yamadori) sang capably.

The direction of Bliss Hebert was unobtrusively intelligent, the sets and costumes of Allen Charles Klein and the lighting of Michael Newton-Brown made the production beautiful to look at, and the conducting of Anton Guadagno kept taut control over the musical structure.

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