Lack of insight sinks this 'Butterfly'

March 07, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

A few details that don't work can sometimes make opera go awry, resulting in three hours of thinking, "Why didn't I go to see 'Ace Ventura, Pet Detective?' " That was the view here -- admittedly a minority opinion at Saturday night's performance -- of the Washington Opera's production of Giacomo Puccini's "Madama Butterfly."

This "Butterfly" not only couldn't take off, but also continually made one aware of Puccini's sentimental machinery. When Cio-Cio-San (or Butterfly) sings to her 3-year-old son that she is killing herself for his sake, a listener shouldn't be able to realize that the reason for her suicide is simply that the composer wants to make us weep.

Part of the problem was soprano Yan Yan Wang, who sang the title role. She has a beautiful, powerful and fresh voice. Moreover, she's young, attractive and slim enough so that her Pinkerton, Ukrainian tenor Vladimir Grishko, could easily carry her over the wedding threshold. What could be wrong?

What was wrong was that she demonstrated little insight -- especially in the first act -- into the role. All the vocal splendor in the world won't do much if the soprano doesn't know enough to pay attention to details, such as the words "or son contento" in Act I's closing love duet, that bring the music to life. Although better in the second act, she still didn't deliver enough to make "Un bel di" little more than a demonstration of vocal prowess. Wang was at her best in the finale -- her "Che tua madre" was genuinely heartfelt -- but it was too little, too late.

Grishko's Pinkerton was a bigger problem. This was a case not only of a lack of insight, but also of a voice that didn't sound right for the role. Grishko's major concern all evening seemed only that of singing at a fortissimo level. It is a powerful voice -- one that can be impressive in Russian opera -- but not beautiful in an Italianate way. Moreover, his acting was as bullying as his singing. This was not a case of creating an interpretation of an ugly American or a callow youth, but simply of behaving so much like a clod that one wondered what Butterfly saw in him. In the love duet, the tenor showed about as much romantic ardor as a tom cat that's been "fixed."

One hopes that Wang and Grishko grow in their portrayals, because most of the other singers in this production -- with beautiful sets and costumes by Ming Cho Lee and Zack Brown -- were excellent. Louis Otey sang and acted thoughtfully as the American consul; Yun Deng showed a mezzo soprano voice of exceptional beauty as Suzuki; Richard Markley was appropriately sinister as the marriage-broker, Goro; and David Langan was terrifying in his huge-voiced portrayal of the Bonze. The singers in the Washington Opera Chorus were their usual excellent selves. Even the less-than-dependable Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra played well under the experienced baton of Richard Buckley.

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