Sunday, August 6, 2017

Seattle Creates Magic in Opening Night 'Butterfly'

Alexey Dolgov, Lianna Haroutounian.  photo Philip Newton
REVIEW: Seattle Opera


A number of key company debuts marked Seattle Opera’s 2017-18 season opening of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly on Saturday, Aug. 5 at Marion McCaw Hall in a magical production filled with eye candy and, most importantly, stunning vocal performances. 

In the title role, debuting Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian was luminescent. She paced the long, demanding vocal challenges of the role beautifully, always in control of her glowing voice but saving the total effect of her vocal power for such moments as the high “C” at the end of the Act 1 love duet. Her vocal energy never flagged, even in the most demanding moments, and the sheer loveliness of her voice stayed in full splendor from beginning to end. Dramatically, it was refreshing to see a Butterfly with such versatility and believability. Many sopranos can convincingly portray the deep anguish of the character; but few can bring forth the playfulness of a teenage mom with her young child as compellingly as Haroutounian did, and the audience was clear in its appreciation of her overall performance. 

Supporting her was Renée Rapier, whose lovely mezzo complemented the voice of the mistress to whom she was devoted. Rapier made the most of her shining moments, especially in Act 3 when the dramatic burden leans most heavily on her.

L. Haroutounian, W. Hurt, R. Rapier; photo Philip Newton
Debuting tenor Alexey Dolgov made a valiant effort to sustain Pinkerton’s difficult tessitura in Act 1, but because of illness he was forced to give the role over in Act 3 to his co-lead Dominick Chenes, whose robust Italianate tenor suited the role perfectly. Stepping in at the last moment as a debut is always a high-stress situation, but Chenes seemed wholly at ease in the circumstances. One looks forward to hearing more of him in the future. 

Weston Hurt’s sumptuous baritone has become familiar to Seattle audiences, and always a pleasure to hear. As Sharpless, he delivered lush vocality and portrayed the underused character with subtlety and dramatic skill. His reaction to the reveal of Butterfly’s child was unusually forceful and affecting.  

Of special note was Rodell Rosel’s Goro. More often than not this stock character is portrayed stereotypically and two-dimensionally. However, Rosel brought extra depth to his depiction, with comic and dramatic flourishes that fleshed out the inscrutable characteristics that lay beneath the surface. Vocally, he brought an unusual richness to his performance, staying in character yet bringing a certain melodic attractiveness that is not easy to achieve in this role.

Rodell Rosel; photo Jacob Lucas
 The production was one of the most attractive this reviewer has seen, and this was due in large part to the inventiveness of an Australian triumvirate: director Kate Cherry; and debuting production designer Christina Smith and lighting designer Matt Scott. Cherry brought new insight into the subtleties of the characters that went beyond time-tested normalities and gave the singers more opportunities to plumb the depths of their personal foibles and tragedies. The magical moments were many: from the glow of the descending lanterns at the end of Act 1 to the glitter of the Perseid-like shower of fluttering stars accompanying the lovers to their initial tryst. The colors and shading of the lighting would have impressed even the opera’s original, lighting-innovative writer-director David Belasco, with its realistic, multihued sunsets and sunrises, pale grey-white background symbolizing the color being washed away from Butterfly’s life, and vivid blood-red backdrop evoking Butterfly’s suicide.

Renée Rapier, Scarlett del Rosario, Lianna Haroutounian; photo Philip Newton
Conductor Carlo Montanaro made an impressive showing. His control of the tempi and musical shading was always stylistically tasteful and appropriate; whereas some conductors often rush through moments that go like the wind, Montanaro kept the pace lively without giving the impression that he was being hurried. He managed to keep the orchestra at a level that, in an orchestration that often borders on the Wagnerian, did not overwhelm the singers; though Haroutounian’s robust soprano could be heard clearly above even the loudest fortissimi. The few inaccuracies within the orchestra’s ranks undoubtedly will be solved in subsequent performances.  

Creditable renderings of the minor characters by Daniel Sumegi (the Bonze), Ryan Bede (Yamadori), Sarah Mattox (Kate Pinkerton) and Jonathan Silvia (Imperial Commissioner) rounded out a uniformly strong cast. Scarlett del Rosario was a winsome Sorrow. The juxtaposition of dialogue in the final scenes, i.e. giving some of the key Butterfly and Sharpless lines to Kate, was a bit puzzling.

Alexey Dolgov, Lianna Haroutounian; photo Jacob Lucas

Photo credits: Philip Newton, Jacob Lucas
Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

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