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$20 Ticket Detective: Madama Butterfly at NYCO

I’m sure I’m not the only opera-lover happy to see New York City Opera finally back in full swing this spring. It was a tough slog for the company without a regular performance venue during theater renovations.

I missed the opening-night gala performance of Chabrier’s L’Etoile on Thursday but made it to Madama Butterfly the next night—the same Mark Lamos production broadcast on “Live from Lincoln Center” a few years ago. Once again Shu-Ying Li sang Cio-Cio San, and, if anything, she has gotten better during that time. Quinn Kelsey, the promising young baritone who sang “Sharpless,” has commented that Shu-Ying Li gets that character of Cio-Cio San so thoroughly that there are times it’s “hard to forget it’s make-believe.” I’d have to agree with that assessment: her portrayal is a fragile but headstrong teenager who refuses to believe she’s been abandoned by Pinkerton no matter how obvious it is to everyone around her. Mostly, Li lets the music speak for itself; she keeps its soaring phrases pure and lyrical, without histrionics, and employing no excessive movement. The audience was reserved in its applause until the thunderous ovation greeting Li when she came out—clearly still  emotionally drained from the riveting final scene.

Shu-Ying Li as Cio-Cio SanThe Lamos production has held up well, with its simple sliding doors, a stage-width staircase, and simple props. The cherry-blossom scene features a long pale-pink silk cloth, moving gently to resemble the sea, and at the end of Act I, the stage is lit in blue, creating a striking effect against Pinkerton’s white uniform and Cio’Cio San’s red dress and white robe.

My mind is not made up yet about the renovated theater. Difficult acoustics have plagued the place since it was built in the 1960s. I sat in the Fourth Ring—pretty high up—and the balance was perfect for some singers but not others. Shu-Ying Li, Nina Yoshida Nelsen (Suzuki), and Kelsey Quinn carried over the orchestra just fine, but others—Steven Harrison as Pinkerton Daesan No as Yamadori—were harder to hear. The orchestra played well but sounded less lush than the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra on a typical night.

I don’t have a big gripe with the sound in the theater. Beverly Sills used to say in the theater’s defense that she didn’t ever have a problem being heard when she was a star singer there. It’s hard to put into words what seems lacking, except to say that with the dull red-and-gold palette in the seating area, lighting that is cool rather than warm, and the bare concrete floors, it can feel more functional than festive. I could be wrong about this, and would love to be convinced otherwise. I’ll have a chance for a reassessment when I head over to see Handel’s Partenope later this spring, with Cynthia Sieden in the title role.

Image: Shu-Ying Li as Cio-Cio San courtesy New York City Opera.

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SundayArts is made possible in part by First Republic Bank and by the Rubin Museum of Art. Funding for SundayArts is also made possible by Rosalind P. Walter, The Paul and Irma Milstein Foundation, The Philip & Janice Levin Foundation, Elise Jaffe and Jeffrey Brown, Jody and John Arnhold, and The Lemberg Foundation. This program is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Additional funding provided by members of THIRTEEN.
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