Dates: 27 & 30 November and 2, 4, 7, 9, 11 (matinée) December 2004 Venue: Queen Elizabeth Theatre

Reviewer: J. H. Stape

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Conductor Joseph Rescigno Director Glynis Leyshon

Cio-Cio San Liping Zhang Pinkerton Scott Piper Suzuki Julie Nesralláh Sharpless Gregory Dahl Goro Michael Corbeil Bonze David Bedard Yamadori Andrew Greenwood Registrar Christian Garcia Kate Pinkerton Viviane Houle

Vancouver Opera's centenary production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly pays homage to a grande dame of fifteen, who "age shall not wither, nor custom stale." Puccini himself would have wept at the superbly sung portrayal by Chinese soprano Liping Zhang, essaying the role fresh from triumphs at The Metropolitan Opera and Covent Garden. Her Butterfly is simply a "must see," but her extraordinary performance is not the only reason to rush out to buy a ticket. The other principals deliver strong, vivid performances, and the stark staging, borrowed from the Canadian Opera Company, is dramatically effective.

Blessed with a powerfulspinto voice, Zhang is also a consummate actress. Every gesture, every step portrays a complex personality -- the vulnerability of youth, the fiery surrender of a lover, the momentary flare of temper at a slight, the imagination bold enough to embrace another culture, the mother forced to give up her child. At every moment, Zhang realizes the music, not missing a cue and delivering a passionate, convincing performance that in its vocal and dramatic authenticity and impact becomes authoritative, pure and simple. In as brief a line as "Te lo commando" to Suzuki, her vocal and dramatic sense are utterly sure and complete. Zhang is Butterfly.

In an age where interesting tenor voices are in woefully short supply and ever great demand, Vancouver Opera has luckily hit upon tenor Scott Piper whose vital, dashing, Pinkerton catches the brash American bore without overplaying him. Piper's lyric voice, large and secure and richly coloured with hints of early mid-period Pavarotti, is used with taste and conviction. The middle register is especially honey-toned. Bring him back, please in a title-role!

Julie Nesralláh's dark-voiced Suzuki is a careful and subtle creation. Establishing her presence and importance at the outset, she suffers and rejoices unstintingly with Butterfly, no less lost in the meshes of tragedy. The minor roles of The Bonze (David Bedard) and Prince Yamadori (Andrew Greenwood) are brought to life vividly, each of the singing-actors making much of their brief appearances. Viviane Houle gives considerable character to the small role of Kate Pinkerton.

Less strong are the Goro of Michel Corbeil, vocally adequate but making no strong impact, and The Consul of Gregory Dahl, who acts impressively but whose light baritone lacks vocal heft and sufficient dramatic colour. His big moment in the immensely affecting letter scene is an opportunity not so much missed as glossed over.

On loan from the COC, the set concentrates on Butterfly, eschewing the kitchen-sink realism still so prominent in North American operatic productions for a psychological space in which her destiny works itself out, from un-self-conscious joy to intense sorrow. The lighting is a stronger suit than usual for the Vancouver Opera, and the costumes and stage movement dramatically alert.

Madama Butterfly is more difficult to muck about than many operas, and Vancouver Playhouse Director Glynis Leyshon manages to restrain a directorial heavy hand. The presence of "The Ancestors," who look like they have emerged from a a garbage dump, is less obtrusive than in other productions (no original idea here), but why can't Butterfly die alone? Deserted by her culture, which has no interest in claiming her back though she reverts to it, the most heartrending death in all opera emphasizes a grand solitude.

The orchestra plays at white heat, as it did in the company's recent Der Rosenkavalier, with Maestro Joseph Rescigno urging on a passionate, highly detailed reading of Puccini's ever fresh score, with every nuance brightly conveyed. The strings, in particular, played their hearts out.

A few years ago Vancouver Opera Director James W. Wright talked about "raising the company's artistic bar." He can be justifiably proud: Vancouver Opera is no longer a company on the move -- it has arrived.

© 2004 J. H. Stape