Racette’s riveting portrayal lifts Lyric Opera’s second-cast “Butterfly”

January 13, 2014
Stefano Secco and Patricia Racette in Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" at Lyric Opera. Photo: Dan Rest

Stefano Secco and Patricia Racette in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” at Lyric Opera. Photo: Dan Rest

The Lyric Opera of Chicago launched its new production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly last October, replacing the beloved but aged Harold Prince kabuki staging. And while Christopher Oram’s set offers a clean and effective Minimalist scenic design, the production suffered from a pair of vocally uneven principals and a dramatically tepid performance.

Fortunately, with two new singers in the leading roles, Lyric’s Butterfly is now a much more compelling and vocally satisfying show, boosted enormously by Patricia Racette’s riveting characterization of the doomed Cio-Cio San.

Butterfly is a Racette signature role, one she performed to acclaim at Lyric Opera’s last outing in 2009. The soprano’s voice, never one of sumptuous Italianate richness, has thinned out even more, and Racette proved underpowered in most of her big vocal moments, with an “Un bel di” stronger on nuance of characterization than luxuriant vocalism.

Still, Racette is such a resourceful and compelling actress that her dramatic commitment tended to balance the vocal shortcomings. She created a fully rounded character, charming and believably girlish as the loving and innocent Japanese teen bride. Racette’s performance rose to the drama of the long second act magnificently, charting Cio-Cio San’s tragic end from numbed disbelief to heart-broken anguish, Racette singing with searing emotional intensity in the final scene.

Making his company debut as the American lieutenant who marries and then discards his young bride, Stefano Secco was all gain over last October’s Pinkerton. The Italian tenor is merely a capable actor yet he delivered the vocal goods in superb style, singing with genuine Italianate fervor and powerful top notes, his “Addio, fiorito asil” gleaming and riven with remorse.

MaryAnn McCormick has grown into a more well-rounded and better sung Suzuki. Child actor Kayla McGovern took over the duties as Butterfly’s son with aplomb.

Christopher Purves remains a Sharpless for the ages, singing with a big, warm baritone and bringing a dignified humanity to the American Consul. Like everything else about this production, Marco Armiliato’s conducting was greatly improved over opening night last fall, the Italian conductor leading Puccini’s score with greater grip and dramatic impact.

Note: For a city that is supposed to be culturally sophisticated, can Chicago opera audiences please stop booing the tenor in the role of Pinkerton at the curtain call? He’s playing a character, people. Good lord.

Madama Butterfly runs through January 26. lyricopera.org; 312-332-2244.

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