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Lyric Opera’s emotionally charged ‘Butterfly’ soars

AmandEchalaz James Valenti star Lyric OperChicago producti'MadamButterfly.' | PHOTO BY DAN REST

Amanda Echalaz and James Valenti star in the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of "Madama Butterfly." | PHOTO BY DAN REST

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Highly recommended

Where: Civic Opera House,
20 N. Wacker, through Oct. 30

Tickets: $34-$244

Info: (312) 332-2244;

Updated: April 14, 2014 4:49PM

Few operas are more frequently performed than Giacomo Puccini’s popular “Madama Butterfly.”

But a formidable cast realized the full emotional power of this 1904 work in a heart-wrenching Lyric Opera of Chicago production that opened Tuesday evening and offered a fresh reminder of why it is such a classic.

This new-to-Chicago version (ably revived here by Louisa Muller) steers clear of imposing anything novel or over-complicated on this simple yet compelling story of a pleasure-seeking American naval officer, a naively faithful young geisha and a blunt clash of cultures.

Instead, director Michael Grandage’s straightforward staging zeros in on investing the opera’s central characters with genuine humanity and depth, and the four singers in the principal roles have both the vocal and acting skills to pull it off successfully.

Inspired by traditional Japanese art and design, Christopher Oram’s clean, open and elegant set is dominated by a curved walkway that sweeps from the back to the front of the raked stage. A sliding screen and a bit of furniture evokes Butterfly’s small house, and silhouetted branches and trees adorn the top and back of the stage.

Neil Austin’s understated lighting enhances the overall scenic effect, especially his nuanced evocation of day to moonlit darkness to dawn during Butterfly’s all-night vigil between Acts 2 and 3.

But as handsome as the visuals are, the focus here is squarely on the principal singers (all but one making their Lyric debuts), and all deliver first-rate performances, starting with soprano Amanda Echalaz in the title role as Cio-Cio-San.

Possessing a rich, vibrant voice and moving seamlessly from high to low register, she vividly captured both the geisha’s starry-eyed youthfulness and steely fortitude. Echalaz delivered one vocal highlight after another, from Butterfly’s beautiful love duet with Pinkerton in Act 1 to the character’s final tortured acceptance of her fate.

Looking every bit a strapping naval officer and possessing a fluid, full-bodied tenor voice that could hardly be better suited to this opera, tenor James Valenti seemed completely at home in the role of Lt. B. F. Pinkerton. He made the most of the character’s soaring arias and managed to convey both the character’s blithe self-centeredness and authentic remorse at the end.

In addition, baritone Christopher Purves and mezzo-soprano MaryAnn McCormick brought substantial, well-rounded portrayals to the opera’s two key yet sometimes under-valued supporting roles. Taking full advantage of his full, expressive voice and total sense of ease on stage, Purves imbued Sharpless, the American consul in Nagasaki, with a sense of empathy and presence. McCormick made the most of the easy-to-overlook role of Suzuki, and she proved to be an ideal vocal partner to Echalaz in Act 2.

Conductor Marco Armiliato adroitly supported the singers and drew maximum dramatic impact from the action onstage, while vibrantly bringing to life Puccini’s evocative score, tinged with Asian modes and American patriotic songs.

All the elements came together in Lyric’s production, injecting new energy into a familiar opera stalwart.

Kyle Macmillan is a local freelance writer.

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