Madama Butterfly

★ ★ ★ ★

In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of Puccini’s death in 1924, the Teatro Massimo di Palermo presents a captivating new production of “Madama Butterfly” for the 2024 opera season, featuring a stellar cast.

Director Nicola Berloffa offers a fresh perspective on the tale of the hapless geisha, Cio-Cio-San. Berloffa’s approach relocates the narrative from the late 19th century to the post-World War II era when Japan found itself under American control. Additionally, the staging shifts from domestic interiors to a traditional Japanese theatre, including a cinema screen and projector from the second act onwards, meticulously crafted by stage designer Fabio Cerstish. This theatre is also a place where young geishas are sold to the American soldiers and officers. These creative choices serve the purpose to universalise Cio-Cio-San’s anguish and intensify the clash between the American and Japanese civilisations. Moreover, the cinema, where 1940s movies are projected,  becomes Cio-Cio-San refuge from a reality that shuns her: disowned by her Japanese relatives first and abandoned by her husband later, she retreats into her own American imaginary world. However, this illusion shatters when confronted by the presence of Pinkerton’s American wife Kate, forcing Butterfly to face her harsh reality.

The clash of cultures resonates poignantly in Puccini’s orchestration, blending Japanese melodies with the intense lyricism of the Western music. Under the baton of conductor Omer Meir Wellber, the Teatro Massimo orchestra adeptly highlights these distinctions.

Yet, despite these innovative concepts, the initial act disappoints, primarily due to the interpretation of the title role by Italian soprano Maria Agresta. Agresta’s portrayal lacks the evolution demanded by Cio-Cio-San’s character arc, portraying her already as a seasoned woman from the outset rather than a naive teenager in love. However, Agresta redeems herself in the subsequent acts, delivering a poignant and flawless performance that earns her a well-deserved ovation. She skillfully controls her lyrical soprano voice from pianissimi to powerful high notes, artfully changing her vocal colors to convey hope, faith, and despair.

Jonathan Tetelman delivers a standout performance as the villain Pinkerton, exuding impetuosity and occasional brutality while convincingly maintaining his charm. His brilliant and precise high notes fill the theatre, adding intensity to his portrayal. In supporting roles, Sivia Beltrami shines as the faithful servant Suzuki, masterfully utilising her lower register to underscore the unfolding tragedy, while Simon Mechlinski imbues the consul Sharpless with warmth and compassion throughout.

Despite occasional flaws, this production offers an excellent rendition of “Madama Butterfly” that should not be missed.

Opera by Giacomo Puccini

Libretto: Luigi Illica, Giuseppe Giacosa

Conductor: Omer Meir Wellber

Director: Nicola Berloffa

Cast includes: Maria Agresta,  Silvia Beltrami, Emanuela Sgarlata, Jonathan TetelmanSimon MechlińskiMassimiliano Chiarolla, Italo Proferisce, Nicolò Ceriani

Orchestra and choir of the Teatro Massimo di Palermo

Teatro Massimo, Palermo, Italy

Until the 24th of February 2024

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