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Puccini, Madama Butterfly: Soloists, Orquestra de la Comunitat Valenciana. Chorus de la Generalitat Valenciana, Conductor: Lorin Maazel, Palau de Les Arts de Valencia. 8. 4.2008 (JMI)

Production from Teatro alla Scala

Director: Keita Asari (Original)
Michiko Taguchi (Revival)
Sets: Ichiro Takada
Costumes: Hanae Mori
Lighting. Sumio Yoshii


Cio Cio San: Liping Zhang
Pinkerton: Massimiliano Pisapia
Sharpless: Vasili Gerello
Suzuki: Marina Rodríguez Cusí


There is no question that Madama Butterfly is one of most beloved operas for any audience, but it needs an exceptional interpreter in the title role  to  succeed. She not only has to cope with all the vocal difficulties, but also she has to be a great actress, able to moving an audience with her personal tragedy. In short, Madama Butterfly needs a great soprano with very special acting gifts. When we have such an artist, even possible vocal deficiencies seem secondary, as was the case Cristina Gallardo Domas last summer in Madrid, not to mention Fiorenza Cedolins in Barcelona and Bilbao two years ago.

Even when there is not a  soprano with such gifts as these, Puccini’s wonderful music remains, which is what happened here in Valencia. Few will remember the protagonist of this opera but what they will recall is a  bright and almost symphonic Butterfly.

The interpretation offered by Lorin Maazel and his Orchestra  was one of  exceptional brilliance. This veteran conductor knows the ensemble that he leads perfectly  and he decided show off  his orchestra at his best with a sound full of strength and quality. What Maazel has accomplished at Valencia in only  two years is a kind of miracle. I left the theatre very impressed by the orchestra, even astonished, but in no way moved by the performance as a whole.

 To me it felt like  an exhibition of extraordinary sound, but one in which the interpretation was too  superficial and short in emotion. As  is usual with Maazel, the tempi were rather slow, making the opera last almost 2 hours and 45 minutes, intermission excluded. It is clear however  that the best of the show came from the pit and it is fair to acknowledge  Maazel’s skill in modulating  the sound to avoid swamping  the singers – at least  to a great extent.

Filling the title role has been rather like a game of musical chairs in Valencia. Initially,  Cristina Gallardo Domas was announced, but there were widespread rumours of her cancellation, which indeed duly happened. Substitutes were found  by engaging  the Ukranian Oksana Dyka and Chinese Hui He for the last few performances  but  again, Ms. Dyka was herself replaced a few weeks ago by Russian Elena Nebera, who was not the definitive protagonist either, and then by  the Chinese soprano Liping Zhang. She is a  pleasant lyric  soprano with limited vocal power, although she is a specialist in the role of Cio Cio San, having sung it in leading houses, such as Covent Garden and the Metropolitan. I am sure that her appearance has much to do with all that, as happened in the past with Yoko Watanabe or Yashuko Hayashi and  more recently with Sun Xiu Wei. Ms. Zhang has a very pleasant tone, but so little  power in the role that . one of the most dramatic passages (“Tu, tu, piccolo Iddio”) did not raise any applause, simply because there was no  emotion in the performance. You need more than accuracy for Butterfly, especially when there’s no high D flat in the first act.

Italian tenor Massimiliano Pisapia was a reasonable Pinkerton, short on legato and vocal elegance. He is a full lyric tenor, who has a middle register  of less than excessive quality, but he gains  brilliance with  tons of squillo in the expansive notes, where rather than getting narrower, his voice becomes wider and brighter. Even so, there was very little  emotion in the beautiful first Act duet and his aria “Addio fiorito asil” was rather matter of fact.

Sharpless was another substitution,  after the young and very promising Brazilian Paulo Szot also cancelled. He was replaced by the Russian Vasili Gerello who  despite of having good vocal volume, as he has shown many times in the past, had trouble with projection particularly in the first act. He improved in the second half, although there were still some pitch problems.

Marina Rodriguez Cusí has become a kind of reference as Suzuki who proved yet again that you don’t need to leave Valencia to find  any  better interpreter of this role. Among the secondary characterers, Emilio Sanchez has given better performances of Goro  in the past,  Alfredo Zanazzo was sonorous and no more as Zio Bonzo and  Lluis Martinez was a good Prince Yamadori. Sandra Ferrández delivered the 6 lines that Puccini put into  Kate Pinkerton’s mouth perfectly adequately.

This  La Scala production by  Keita Asari, is already  23 years old and it is very traditional production with a small Japanese small house in the middle of the stage. The characters are well defined, but Cio Cio San seems far too resigned to her fate.

This was the first performance of the run and there was a packed house for it , of course. . At the final bows the real triumph went to Maazel and the orchestra, who shared their  success with 
Liping Zhang.

José M Irurzun

Picture © Palau de Les  Arts de Valencia

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