'Madama Butterfly' becomes lifeless at hand of unimaginative conductor

February 04, 1994|By Phil Greenfield | Phil Greenfield,Special to The Sun

The New York City Opera National Company dedicates itself to the task of bringing young talent from the Big Apple's No.

TC opera house to the provinces "in old-fashioned bus and truck style," the printed program declares.

Last Friday, they bused and trucked to Annapolis to present Puccini's immortal "Madama Butterfly" before a packed house at the U.S. Naval Academy's Alumni Hall. A full week later, I'm still scratching my head trying to figure out what gives with this company.

Make no mistake, these were highly pedigreed youngsters.

Michele Boucher, who sang the role of the ill-fated geisha who bestows her love on Pinkerton, the caddish American naval officer, has already performed leading Puccini roles at both the New York City Opera and the Met.

Mezzo-soprano Helen Yu, who sang the role of Suzuki, Butterfly's faithful servant, has already played one of Mozart's premier mezzo roles as Cherubino in the "Marriage of Figaro" with the New York City Opera. And the love-'em-and-leave-'em Navy man was played by Michael Hayes, a quality tenor very much on the way up.

Vocally there was nothing wrong with any of the other featured singers, and the orchestra was filled with first-rate players.

So why was this "Butterfly" so unrelentingly blah?

The answer begins in the pit with the baton of Steven Mosteller, a time-beater who breezed through the score molding more air than music. The opening orchestral interlude was an unholy mess, and I am hard-pressed to recall a single passage where an inflection or imaginative manipulation of tempo made anything special happen.

Ms. Boucher is a "floater," whose airy, serene voice might have spun off some real magic in the famous "Un bel di" if a more simpatico presence had been at work on the podium. Instead, it was workmanlike at best.

Butterfly committed herself most touchingly to Pinkerton (she converts to Christianity, to the horror of her family), but Act I concluded without much erotic sizzle in either the singing or the stagecraft. In fact, blocking was a problem throughout. There were more than a few instances where characters seemed to be in motion without much dramatic purpose.

Has any child ever been given a more contrived piggy-back than the one Butterfly gave her son in Act II?

Suzuki was inaudible much of the time, drowned out by the orchestra that might have been miked less obtrusively had sonic details been worked out with greater care beforehand.

All in all, then, I must say this was truly a disappointment. For an earthbound "Butterfly" is no more a joy in the opera house than it is in nature.

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