Friday, March 04, 2016

Madama Butterfly

The extraordinary American soprano Latonia Moore sang only her second complete operatic performance at the Metropolitan Opera on Wednesday night. Like her company debut -- as Aida, in 2012 -- this appearance, as Cio-Cio-San in Madama Butterfly, was a last-minute substitution. Although she was announced for a handful of Aidas during the 2014-15 season, which she had to cancel due to pregnancy, and is on the roster for the 2016-17 season (as Aida once again), the fact that she has been largely absent from the premiere opera company in the U.S. is curious and problematic -- especially considering that her performance Wednesday evening may be the best performance of the demanding role I've seen and heard in the past decade.

Photo: Marty Sohl for the Metropolitan Opera

The Met's production of Madama Butterfly, created by the late Anthony Minghella and lovingly maintained by his widow, Carolyn Choa, is a jewel in general manager Peter Gelb's crown. Since the production's debut in 2006, the title role has most frequently been sung by house favorite Patricia Racette, who (wisely) decided to retire the role last year. When Hei-Kyung Hong -- a light lyric soprano who, for some reason, decided that it would be a good idea to sing her first Butterfly at the age of 57 -- cancelled her series of performances, the acclaimed soprano Ana Maria Martinez stepped in for most. (I listened to Martinez in a live broadcast from the Met, and she sounded wonderful). However, Latonia Moore was assigned a single performance, and I immediately bought a ticket.

Vocally and dramatically, Moore is the whole package. She possesses a supple full-lyric soprano that reminds me of the Bulgarian soprano Anna Tomowa-Sintow, a popular artist in the 1980s and 1990s. Her voice sails over the orchestra, but she never sacrifices tonal beauty for volume. Her Italian is flawlessly idiomatic. Best of all, she is the kind of actress who is always present in the scene, flawlessly conveying Butterfly's journey from the hopeful teenage bride of the American sailor Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, to the ever-faithful woman who is left behind in Japan, penniless and with a young child, after Pinkerton returns to America.

The other roles were not as felicitously cast. The British tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones brought volume, but little else, to the role of Pinkerton. The American mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak, who has sung Suzuki at nearly every performance of this opera over the last decade, should follow Patricia Racette's example. The Polish baritone Artur Rucinski, who is making his house debut in this series of performances, is a promising artist, but the role of the American counsel Sharpless might not show him off to the best of his abilities.

The conductor Karel Mark Chichon, also debuting in these performances, led a sensitive and intuitive reading of the score, and Minghella's production was as visually and emotionally stunning as ever. However, the story here was Moore. This great artist recently made role debuts as Tosca (at New York City Opera) and Elisabetta in Verdi's Don Carlo (with Opera Australia). Though Aida is her calling card, she also has Don Giovanni (Donna Anna and Donna Elvira), Pagliacci (Nedda), Simon Boccanegra (Amelia), and Ernani (Elvira) in her repertoire. These are all roles she should be singing at the Met -- and roles that, in recent seasons, have been performed at the Met by significantly inferior artists. You ignore an artist as great as Latonia Moore at your peril. In the meantime, I'll be buying some Aida tickets for next season.

by Cameron Kelsall

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