Born Of Tumult, ‘Butterfly’ Glistens At Teatro Colón

Cio-Cio San awaits word of Pinkerton in the Teatro Colon production of 'Madama Butterfly.'  (Photo by Arnaldo Colombaroli)
Cio-Cio San (Liana Aleksanyan) awaits word of Pinkerton in the new Teatro Colón production of ‘Madama Butterfly.’
(Arnaldo Colombaroli-Teatro Colón)
By James L. Paulk

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — In the taxi to Teatro Colón, Buenos Aires’s fabled 1908 opera house, my septuagenarian driver, with a bit of encouragement, began crooning tango classics emotionally with a quavering but very serviceable tenor voice. “Bien cantando,” I said as I exited, and he advised me to immerse myself in the music of his country. It’s like that here. There is a passion for song not unlike that in Italy, and it extends to opera as well.

Love duet: Pinkerton (James Valenti) and Cio-Cio San (Liana Aleksanyan).
Love duet: Pinkerton (James Valenti) and Cio-Cio San (Aleksanyan).

I was arriving for the Colón’s ambitious new production of Madama Butterfly, directed by Hugo De Ana, an Argentine who has worked extensively in Europe’s major opera houses. Patricia Racette was scheduled to sing Cio-Cio San, but cancelled at the eleventh hour, apparently another example of the chaos that surrounds the Colón these days, the result of the country’s economic crisis. When I was here a year ago for the theater’s innovative Ring project (shrinking the score roughly in half and staging the entire cycle in one nine-hour marathon), Katharina Wagner, great-granddaughter of Himself, became exasperated with the Latin disorder and resigned as stage director with fewer than three weeks to go before opening night.

Somehow, great artistry often emerges from the tumult, and such was the case with De Ana’s innovative, strikingly beautiful production, seen on Nov. 28. We were greeted by a massive curtain of what appeared to be wooden lattice work. It lifted to reveal a metal geometric construction featuring three framed platforms in front of a screen for projections. For once, there were no mountains or shoji screens, and few of the clichés usually bundled with this opera. From the costumes of the Americans and the projections of warships, it was eventually revealed that things had been updated to the aftermath of World War II, when Japan was in ruins and Americans were everywhere.

A hopeful Cio-Cio San has dressed her son, Trouble, in an American flag in the Colon production.
Cio-Cio San clothes Trouble in an American-flag kimono in the Colón production.

Americans tend to prefer a rather superficial approach to Butterfly. Underlying the libretto, after all, is a dark and jaundiced rumination on U.S. imperialism and the sexually predatory behavior of American naval officers towards  minors like Cio-Cio San, concepts that don’t sit well with our self-image. Argentina, it would seem, is one place where anti-American views can be tossed around with impunity, so the opera resonates differently here.

Yet De Ana resisted the urge to push this element of the story, choosing instead to present a rather straightforward account of the interactions among Cio-Cio San, Pinkerton, Suzuki, and Sharpless, but staging the arrivals of the other characters as extravaganzas that combined Kabuki, Bunraku, and Noh theater, all to sensational effect.

Indeed, from the opening moments, as black-clad ninja dancers clapped hyoshigi – sticks that announce the beginning of a play – before the music began, to the end, when a long red ribbon unfurled from Cio-Cio San’s neck, the evening unfolded as an elaborate Japanese-influenced pageant.

Some scenes were especially striking. Never have there been more flowers on a stage than here, as massed garlands of white blossoms were joined by virtual flowers projected on the screen for the flower scene in Act 2. At other times, De Ana got a bit carried away, as when all the characters of the opera appeared in the confusing beginning of Act 3, which also involved elaborate movie projections of Cio-Cio San’s dreams.

All is lost as Cio-Cio San faces the reality of Pinkerton's betrayal.
All is lost as Cio-Cio San faces the reality of Pinkerton’s betrayal.

After Racette’s departure as Cio-Cio San, the company turned to Armenian soprano Liana Aleksanyan. Unlike most who’ve sung the role, she is reasonably plausible as a 15-year-old. But her tremulous voice sounded like that of a much older woman. The role calls for extensive parlando set in the lower register; this was barely audible, despite the Colón’s legendary acoustics. And there was a shrillness at the upper end of the range. Still, there was an intensity to her portrayal, and “Un bel di” came out rather well.

As Pinkerton, we got American tenor James Valenti. Tall and good-looking, he was physically imposing in the role. But somehow, he came across as too nice a guy, not the cad the role calls for. De Ana did his best, with stage business that involved things like throwing a baseball around as the wedding progressed, but Valenti’s small, sweet voice betrayed him. Lacking the heft the role requires, he ran out of steam by the third act.

The remaining cast was first-rate, especially the Suzuki of Argentine mezzo-soprano Guadalupe Barrientos, whose voice displayed fine colors and whose interpretation was stirring. Igor Golovatenko, a young Russian, was a strong Sharpless with a polished baritone sound. The Colón orchestra sounded superb, led in this case by American conductor Ira Levin, the company’s principal guest conductor. Levin is one of the few remaining conductors with a serious side career as a concert pianist. His conducting work has so far taken place primarily in Europe and South America.

Tosca at La Plata’s Teatro Argentino

On Nov. 30, I drove down to La Plata, a university city of about one million, for more Puccini. Teatro Argentino, the country’s second most important opera company, had mounted a new production of Tosca. After a fire destroyed the city’s treasured 1890 opera house, a new house opened in 1999. Its Brutalist architecture is not universally popular, and the exterior is now almost completely covered in graffiti. But the 2,000-seat theater with six horseshoe tiers has splendid acoustics, and performances routinely sell out.

Valeria Ambrosio, artistic director, Teatro Argentino
Artistic director Valeria Ambrosio: An emphasis on projections.

Since it reopened, Teatro Argentino has featured bold programming with an emphasis on new works and provocative productions, drawing a national and international audience. In the last few years, however, it has suffered from subsidy cuts similar to those at the Colón. Financial woes forced the cancellation of a planned production of Wagner’s Ring.

A new director, Valeria Ambrosio, was brought in this year. She previously had no opera experience and seems mainly to have designed sets for espectáculos musicales  like Dracula and Zorba. So far, she has refocused the company on warhorses. The new production of Tosca, which she directed, was highly conventional.

With minimal sets and props, Ambrosia relied almost entirely on high-definition projections, both static and moving. [The adjacent video trailer has examples.] These depicted the various scenes specified in the libretto, but were also used for special effects. For example, Cavaradossi’s first-act aria, “Recondita armonia,” was accompanied by a full-stage slowly moving backdrop of the Marchesa Attavanti’s face, with eyes blinking and head turning. This sort of thing continued all night, including gruesome scenes of Cavaradossi’s torture. The brilliantly colored first act church interior turned to black and white upon Scarpia’s arrival. When Tosca murdered Scarpia, the walls seemed to rip open with giant seams oozing blood. I can’t say it wasn’t fascinating, but it was sometimes distracting.

On the other hand, this was definitely a night when a bit of distraction was welcome. It was clear from the opening scene that the role of Cavaradossi was no longer within the resources of Chilean tenor José Azócar, whose voice produced only vibrato and strain.

Tosca (Amparo Navarro) wrangles with Scarpia (Hernan Iturralde).
Tosca (Amparo Navarro) wrangles with a fearsome Scarpia (Hernán Iturralde).

Spanish soprano Amparo Navarro is attractive and dramatically effective (fortunately given all the blown-up projections of her face we experienced). But her voice was a bit small to fill the room and there were times when the top was pinched.

The best performance of the evening came from Hernán Iturralde, a fearsome Scarpia with ample power and stage presence. Fernando Santiago was especially memorable as the Sacristan.

Carlos Vieu (Diana Sansano)
Carlos Vieu (Diana Sansano)

This was an evening of splendid conducting from Carlos Vieu, a young Argentine who holds several positions here and is rapidly developing an international career. Big and bold, his reading of the score had a vernacular flavor rarely encountered in the U.S.

The season is winding down here (it’s summer).  But next week, Teatro Colón’s excellent Centro de Experimentación, which has its own theater in the Colón’s basement, will host a new production (by Pablo Maritano) of Trust, a dance-opera work with a score by German composer Malte Beckenbach, though the librettist, Falk Richter, got top billing. Somehow, despite the economy, there is a adventurous quality and an abiding passion in the opera scene here.

James L. Paulk is a freelance critic and writes regularly for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.