Sometimes the boondocks can hold pleasant surprises: such was the case of this Madama Butterfly under review, the inauguration of the 2015 season of the Teatro Verdi of Casciana Terme, a small spa town situated in the one of the most gorgeous parts of the Tuscan countryside.   Attending provincial performances can be rewarding, provided that one does not expect too much: in addition to a lot of amateurs trying to give their best, it is possible to stumble into some young professional singers, recognize their talents and then hopefully follow their progress. Normally the audience is offered dusty productions with scanty sets, where stage directors limit themselves to directing traffic; and what’s more, such performances are very likely to be accompanied by a piano. Nothing of the sort was on display in this Madama Butterfly: artistic director Paolo Pecchioli, himself a renowned bass, made sure to banish any hint of amateurishness. From the very beginning, even before the music started, it appeared immediately evident that this was going to be an original, engaging, often thrilling mise-en-scène, where every detail had been manifestly thought out. Producer Emiliana Paoli imagined a short preamble, a pantomime where a middle aged man walks on stage, in the garden of an elegantly frugal and uncluttered Japanese house where he meets an older woman who gladly shows him around and gives him an old box. The man, one can easily guess, was the child “Trouble”; he sits on a chair to one side of the stage, opens the box and starts reading a little book, and it’s at this point that the unmistakable fugato begins. From now on the man will relive his parents’ story, with the brilliant actor Massimo Viganò palpably but never intrusively showing his emotions. All throughout the opera there is some sort of interaction between him and the characters, most touchingly when he as a boy reaches out to himself as an adult. Just prior of the love duet, Ms. Paoli has him leave the stage, so as to allow the newly-weds their honeymoon: he will return only at the very end of the act to close the door as they lie down.   This ingenious devise allowed the audience, or at least myself, to watch the enormously familiar story with renewed interest and emotional participation.   Only Butterfly’s death scene (and once again directors forget that women would commit suicide by cutting their throats) was mawkish, with her dying in Pinkerton’s arms in a very Hollywood like scene, depriving her of the dignity she deserved. The sets were detailed and recognizable– the audience was immediately back to early twentieth century Japan – characterized by a tasteful stylization that avoided the notorious Oriental restaurant look. The costumes were simply gorgeous: Butterfly’s wedding outfit was an authentic period kimono.

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The Teatro Verdi, a lovely but small house, does not have a large pit; thus instruments such as the harp or the percussions were placed at stage level on both sides of the pit, creating an undeniable sound unbalance. I found conductor Simone Marziali’s penchant for brisk tempos quite welcome in an opera where sappiness is often lurking around the corner, and he did not deprive the more tender scenes of delicacy and lyrical repose: speedy and graceful. The Orchestra del Carmine di Firenze was enthused and crispy, and the Coro Schola Cantorum Labronica under Maurizio Preziosi maintained its high standards.

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The cast seemed to have been carefully chosen to match Ms. Paoli’s view of the various characters; for example Kate Pinkerton, normally portrayed as a young attractive all-American blonde, was here viewed as an older, somewhat zaftig and unassuming woman (Deborah Salvagno), most likely to suggest a possible marriage of convenience. Goro (the limpid- voiced Giampaolo Franconi) was given special attention: his face was split in two parts, one Japanese and the other Caucasian, to emphasize the duplicity of the character, and was incessantly moving about the stage with an unsettling unctuous smile, or grin, that made him look like an evil doll. Alessandro Ceccarini was an appropriately thunderous Zio Bonzo and the rest of the cast respectably absolved its supporting duties. Little Trouble, the child actor Gabriele Menis, is worthy of a special mention, considering the vast amount of participation the producer required of him.   Irene Molinari was a warm and responsive Suzuki, while Michele Pierleoni – gifted with a pleasant lyric baritone -portrayed an unusually youthful and svelte Sharpless. Angelo Forte (Pinkerton) does not possess one of those timbres that immediately captivate the listener, but can rely on a good technique, homogenous sound, a ringing high register and a remarkable musicianship. In larger opera houses he should perhaps devote himself to a lighter and higher-lying repertoire. The role of the protagonist must invite full commitment without vulgarity: a lyric soprano of youthful appeal and fresh middle voice who yet must give the impression of extending herself to the limit, both dramatically and physically. Cristina Ferri was in my view somewhat hindered by a relatively weaker low and middle register, and there were several moments where her soprano had problems being heard over the orchestra. Such limits were widely compensated by a strong top (she did take the high D flat option at the end of the entrance), and especially her total involvement in the part; although it was her role debut, she seemed to have owned it forever, her characterization being the accumulation of many creative details. Even though hers may not be my preferred idea of a Cio Cio San sound, her imagination informed her voice with her own special vision of the character. In addition, with her graceful, almost waif-like figure, she easily passed for a fragile fifteen-year old.

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As a whole it is safe to say that this production would have not been out of place in a season of a much more prominent and better financed opera company.

Nicola Lischi

four stars

photo credit: @punto&ACcappo