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In Review > International

Madama Butterfly

Zurich Opera

In Review Zurich Opera hdl 318
Madama Butterfly in Zurich, with Svetlana Aksenova
© T+T fotografie—Toni Suter

ZURICH OPERA'S new production of Madama Butterfly (seen Dec. 10) is a treasure that will provide fond memories for a long time. American stage director Ted Huffman courageously set his production in the opera’s originally specified era and location, a rarity in Zurich. Within these parameters of space and time, Huffman showed a genius for attention to detail, with myriad creative touches that testified to an intimate knowledge of the libretto. Michael Levine’s luminous sets, Annemarie Woods’s glorious costumes and Franck Evin’s masterly lighting all enhanced a production that offered proof that a “traditional” approach need not lack excitement, credibility and passion. MadamaButterfly can feel long, but this production had one at the edge of one’s seat, engrossed in the drama.

Russian soprano Svetlana Aksenova was a revelation as Cio-Cio-San. She held the audience rapt throughout her progression from the demure, obedient girl of Act I to the strong, authoritative woman of Act II and the broken, bewildered creature of the final scene. Even when silent, she commanded attention. Butterfly is an immensely difficult role to sing, needing both delicacy and stamina. Aksenova’s voice occasionally turned coarse under pressure, but this was the sole defect in an otherwise perfect performance.

Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu used his fine lirico spinto voice intelligently, but he seemed strangely uninvolved. Maybe this was a deliberate attempt to depict Pinkerton’s detachment from the damage he was causing, but it made for a rather uninteresting antihero.

Judith Schmid, the Suzuki, was announced as suffering from a cold; both her singing and acting were rather muted. Her sense of subservience to the Americans in Act I and her care for Butterfly in Act II were convincing, and she found her voice when it was most needed, in the lovely flower duet. 

Martin Zysset, a stalwart member of Zurich Opera, specializes in character tenor roles. As Goro, he was blessed with a director who helped him create a fully rounded character. Huffman’s directorial skills were also evident in the way he treated the smallest of roles: Huw Montague Rendall, Ildo Song and Stanislav Vorobyov all came to vivid life as Yamadori, the Bonze and the Commissioner, respectively. In addition, the young Martin Führer, who appeared to be about four years old, put in a stunning performance as Butterfly’s child.

One does not expect Sharpless, an observer of the principal action, to stand out in any production, but Brian Mulligan gave a star-quality performance as the American consul. Mulligan’s characterization went beyond acting. Every gesture, every movement showed us that this man was profoundly uneasy about what he saw but knew he was powerless to influence either Pinkerton or Butterfly. Added to that, Mulligan shaped and colored his voice to the musical and dramatic demands of the role.

Philharmonia Zurich played with tremendous precision under Daniele Rustioni’s enthusiastic, athletic conducting. The voices were sometimes covered in Act I, but things improved.  —Martin Wheeler 

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