By James Karas
This is a review of Madama Butterfly produced by the Greek National Opera and streamed around the world.
No, that is not a misprint. There is a Greek National Opera (GNO) that is alive and kicking. It has a stunning new home in the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Cultural Centre in Athens, and it is has produced and telecast a redoubtable production of Madama Butterfly. More about Greek opera later.
Performances of Madama Butterfly started in October and a recording was made in November just before all events were cancelled due to Covid-19. To their great credit they have decided to stream the recorded performance and remind us of the existence of the Greek National Opera.
The production features Albanian Soprano Ermonela Jaho as Cio-Cio San (Madama Butterfly), the 15-year-old Japanese geisha who falls hopelessly in love with Lieut. Pinkerton of the United States Navy. She delivers a splendid Cio-Cio San. Not only does she sing with sterling vocal beauty but invests the role with emotional depth that is exhilarating and heart-breaking. We see the happy bride who is in love and will do anything to please her lover. In “Un bel di vedremo” she imagines Pinkerton’s return after having been abandoned three years before. There is longing, playfulness, beautifully imagined happiness, all done superbly by Jaho.
The tragic end is yet to come when she realizes the extent of Pinkerton’s perfidy and she has to give up her son and then her life. A performance full of vocal beauty and pathos.
Italian tenor Gianluca Terranova played Pinkerton as an arrogant, self-centered, amoral, “ugly American” who “marries” a young girl to satisfy his lust. Butterfly is a temporary wife, and he can get rid of her on a month’s notice when he has a real wedding with an American girl. Terranova is fine as a swaggering scoundrel and his voice soars to the high notes of his braggadocio. Director Hugo de Ana has him dressed all too casually in an open shirt and slacks. It does not quite befit a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy who is most likely to wear a dress uniform.
Baritone Dionysios Sourbis as the American Consul Sharpless appears more nervous than sympathetic at the start, but he eventually sings and acts like a mensch when the extent of Butterfly’s tragedy strikes him in the face.
Mezzo-soprano Chrysanthi Spitadi deserves kudos for her performance as Butterfly’s faithful servant Suzuki. She sees and knows the truth and tries to help the besotted Butterfly. A completely sympathetic character done well by Spitadi.
Hugo de Ana gives us a classic, conservative production that has many fine details. For example, Butterfly has an icon, a rosary and wears blue jeans. She has renounced her entire cultural background to become an American wife and please Pinkerton. The final scene is done with deep pathos with Butterfly’s suicide handled with effectiveness and restraint.
De Ana goes overboard with some of his costumes for Butterfly’s visitors. Yamadori (Marios Sarntidis) and Bonzo (Yianni Yannisis) don huge, ridiculous wigs. The rest are mostly tasteful and there are some beautiful Japanese costumes.
The set is fairly Spartan but appropriate with skeletons of structures and backdrops indicating the port and appropriate lighting. There is judicious use of video projections especially during the interminable intermezzo.
Lukas Karytinos conducted the Orchestra of the GNO. Because of Covid-19, the size of the orchestra was reduced but it still sounded excellent. Unfortunately, there seems to be a problem with the hall’s acoustics. While the orchestra sounded fine, there was a difference in volume coming from the stage. The singers were never overwhelmed but there were times when it was difficult to hear them. When the main characters sang at full throttle, there was no issue. At other times there was.
Giorgos Koumendakis, the GNO’s Artistic Director, advises that more productions will be televised starting January 2021. That is an incredible step forward for Greek culture.
The Greek National Opera was formed in 1939 and it had its first production on October 25, 1940. In attendance were numerous notables including the Italian Ambassador to Greece, Emanuele Grazzi. He is the one that three days later, in the middle on the night of October 28, 1940 visited Dictator Ioannis Metaxas and delivered Italy’s ultimatum. By the morning, Greece had entered World War II. This production of Madama Butterfly marks the 80th anniversary of the 1940 opening.
There have been many productions since 1940 but very few have merited international attention. A young girl named Mary Kalogeropoulos sang on its stage during the war. She left Greece and went to Italy and became Maria Callas. There are many world-class singers and musicians, and all should be brought to Athens to make the world notice the GNO.
The GNO already has a large roster of in-house singers, dancers, musicians and behind-the-scenes personnel. It promises to telecast more productions to the world. We wait with anticipation and hope. _______________