Fresh Portrayals Breathe New Life Into Two 20th Century Warhorses

Eleanora Buratto, photo @ Richard Termine

 Giacamo Puccini's Madama Butterfly and Alban Berg's Wozzeck are both 20th century masterpieces that caused a shock when they premiered, but over time have become such a part of the repertoire that they have become warhorses. This week I saw two masterful performances that breathed new life into these works.

Goerke and Skovhus
The Wozzeck was a concert presentation at Carnegie Hall. Andris Nelsons led the Boston Symphony Orchestra in an exciting, cinematic performance. Nelsons preferred a lush, larger-than-life reading of Berg's score that was in many ways reminiscent of James Levine's interpretation. At times. the orchestra actually seemed to shimmer. 

The casting was inspired. Bo Skovhus  was a grim, chilling Wozzeck. Despite the concert presentation he conveyed Wozzeck's desperation and mental illness with expert body language. He hunched and twisted his body as if the Doctor's medical experiments were physically wrecking him in real time. He spat out his lines with such vivid bitterness. Christine Goerke used her large, mezzo-like middle voice to great effect to create a warmer Marie than usual. She also appeared sweetly maternal towards the young boy soprano playing Marie and Wozzeck's son. A nice group of character singers sang the supporting roles. My favorite was Frank Hawlata as the sadistic Doctor.

The concert format was actually more effective in conveying the blood-and-guts drama than the Met's fussy, artsy William Kentridge production. You could just focus on the music, the text, and the nuances of the portrayals. This was a memorable night at the opera.

Buratto and Bizic, photo @ Richard Termine
The Met's umpteenth revival of Anthony Minghella's Madama Butterfly arrived with little fanfare -- there's no HD, no promotional article in the New York Times. Too bad, because it featured a remarkable role debut. Eleanora Buratto's Cio Cio San was so heartbreaking and beautifully sung that the minute I left I bought a return ticket. She was hands down the best Cio Cio San I've ever experienced live.

I first heard Buratto a few years back as Norina. At that time I thought that her voice had outgrown Norina. Even so, hearing the expansive bloom on her voice tonight was a shock. This is a large, full lyric soprano. At all the big moments she was able to flood the auditorium with waves of sound that belied her petite appearance. Her pointed Italian diction was a joy on the ears -- she excelled in both the dialogues with Sharpless and Suzuki and the big musical numbers like "Un bel dì."


Buratto and Jagde, photo @ Richard Termine
This is a LONG role, and I've seen many a soprano falter in the marathon second and third acts. Buratto just never ran out of gas -- her "Tu, tu piccolo iddio" was as strong as her entrance in the first act.  Her acting was pitch perfect. She didn't overdo the girlish mannerisms, but she also made it obvious just how young and immature Cio Cio San is. Her naivete made Pinkerton's predatory behavior that much harder to stomach. I heard people sobbing all through the excruciating second act.

Buratto had a strong supporting cast. Brian Jagde has a big, booming voice and a genial personality that suited the role of Pinkerton well. His Pinkerton is more clueless than cruel. David Bizic had a handsome baritone and was a warm, decent Sharpless. Elizabeth DeShong was luxury casting as Suzuki -- her lush, warm mezzo blended beautifully with Buratto's in the Cherry Duet.

Buratto and Trouble, photo @ Richard Termine
I've always liked Anthony Minghella's ultra-stylized production for its gorgeous stage pictures like the falling petals at the end of the first act or the sliding Japanese panels to indicate the passage of time. But tonight I felt like the artificiality of the Bunraku puppetry actually worked against Buratto's direct, emotional portrayal. I kept on thinking how much more heartbreaking Buratto would have been had she been hugging a real live Trouble instead of a puppet. Alexander Soddy was unobtrusive in the pit -- he let the singers take over.

One thought: both Madama Butterfly and Wozzeck end with a generational tragedy -- Trouble and Marie's son have futures so bleak you could write another opera about it.

There are ten more performances of Butterfly from now through May. Go see this. You will not regret it.

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