The venue was already filled to capacity and the conductor about to walk into the pit when Jupiter Pluvius decided to spoil the party, causing a chaotic rush to any shelter in sight; finally, after roaring for about one hour, his wrath was calm, allowing the performance to begin. It was after all the inauguration of the 60th edition of the Festival Puccini, which this year, after a few seasons on shaky ground, during which even popular operas of other composers were performed in order to fill the house, shows concrete signs of returning to past glories. The evidence of such intentions is the decision to present four new productions and no revivals.
Madama Butterfly was bestowed the honour of the inauguration by virtue of its one hundred and tenth anniversary. The presence of Daniel Oren, an extremely important and influential presence in the Italian operatic world, was to seal the significance of the event, but the Israeli conductor, known also for his fiery temperament, left not long before opening night. Rumour has it that he and the management had a deep disagreement regarding one member of the cast, but in any event his presence was sorely missed and dealt a fatal blow to the outcome of the performance. If Oren has often been accused of a take-no-prisoners approach to conducting, his replacement, young Spanish conductor José Miguel Perez Sierra was at the other end of the spectrum, with a halcyon, unfazed and soporific reading of the score; his orchestra meandered through the opera with neither rapture nor apparent interest. Let us just take the two extremes: the fugal opening theme was slack to the point of almost coming apart at the seams and the Death Scene lacked urgency and suspense. In between he gave a circumspect performance of emotional lassitude, depriving the score of its youthful impulse.
Perhaps with another, more stimulating protagonist Perez Sierra would have been encouraged to be more intrepid (and this goes both ways, of course). Unfortunately Micaela Carosi is not one of those artists with a highly individual personality: her acting is listless, and made up of all-purpose stock gestures. Her vocal sound is too murky and coarse, and if one first appears on stage sounding like Erda, the evolution that the protagonist undergoes during the opera will be impossible to particularize. The “piccina mogliettina” of Act I sounded more like a virago throughout, with a very limited palette of colours and little variety of nuances: just one anonymous shade of grey. Moreover, hers was not a healthy sound: the low register was grainy, the middle hooty and the top wobbly and unfocused, thus making pitch rather aleatory. “Un bel dì vedremo” was a compendium of such flaws: wobbly already on the first G flat, it laboriously dragged to the end among short breaths (“tienti-breath-la tua paura”) to a final short and amorphous B flat that elicited just a short courtesy applause. Without trying to minimize or undervalue its many hurdles, Cio-Cio-San is not an impossible role to cast, and the choice of Ms. Carosi for the inauguration of this page-turning edition of the Festival Puccini is puzzling.
Kosovan Rame Lajah displayed a well-trained but small-sized tenor. He was often charming, using honeyed pianissimos to express rapture, as in his delightful conversation following Butterfly’s entrance. Later there were some explosive top tones, which seemed to engage all of his strength. There was a sense that the most passionate moments brought him almost to breaking point. His fine and soft-grained instrument would be certainly heard to better advantage in a smaller, conventional opera house. Renata Lamanda on the other hand has quite a big voice, even too loud for the role of Suzuki: she and Carosi made a particularly unlikely pair of Japanese victims of American insensitivity. Giovanni Meoni was a splendid Sharpless, full-voiced and three dimensional in characterization: mobile, authoritative, and intimate, especially in Act II. His baritone is on the light side but extremely rich in overtones by virtue of a textbook technique. Accustomed to the most exacting baritone roles, he was luxury casting and by far the best element in the cast. Gifted with a crystalline timbre, impeccable musicianship and crisp diction, Luca Casalin (Goro) has long been one of the most accomplished character tenors around; Paolo Battaglia’s true bass made for a commanding Bonzo.
The brand new production was entrusted to Renzo Giacchieri, a stage director with a long-standing relationship at the Festival Puccini. In this past decade the Festival has presented two antithetical but equally effective productions of the Puccini evergreen: the extremely stylized, spell-binding mise-en-scène by Vivien Hewitt and the much more figurative version of Takao Okamura. Known for his elegant and traditional stagings, this time Giacchieri has tried a different path. Those who oppose Regietheater need not worry: there was nothing that could not be referred to turn of the century Japan. The first act was characterized by the lack of a backdrop, and the only visible object was a tiny house on one side; during the love duet a big moon emerges from the lake creating an enchanting and appropriately romantic atmosphere. The second act was dominated by the presence of tall panels representing wintry landscapes; at “Trionfa il mio amor”, they revolved to show a spring in full bloom: it was an awe-inspiring coup de théâtre that elicited instant applause from the audience. The idea of pushing the prow of Pinkerton’s ship on stage during Butterfly’s suicide was unnecessary to say the least. Giaccheri has conceived a mise-en-scène that is less faithful to Japan than the refined conception that Puccini had of that country. He also employed kabuki figures and the participation of Hal Yamanouchi, a versatile artist long resident in Italy, made sure that the gestures of both principals and extras were as historically accurate as possible. In a way Giaccheri gave birth to a production that could be called a synthesis of its two predecessors, cemented by his own strong personality and undoubtedly destined to last.