Although Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is said to be one of those operas in which everything depends on the singer taking the title role, the truth is that most of us have almost invariably seen sopranos who are not ideally cast from one reason or another. However, if the production is interesting, the conductor knows how to play the right effects in the score, the tenor is congenial and the soprano is a good actress, has lovely enough a voice and is intelligent enough to build an interpretation, one calls it a successful Butterfly. But what if you finally have a singer born to sing this role, but nothing else – can you call this success?
Chinese soprano Hui He is the real thing. Since the days of Mirella Freni, no other soprano in my experience evokes such girlishness, such naiveté and such loveliness while filling the hall with streams of bright and creamy sounds. The comparison with Freni is no coincidence – as the great Italian soprano, Hui He has an exemplary control of passaggio offering an ideal focused, crystalline and spontaneous sound in her middle and low registers. However, rich and true as her acuti are, they could be a little bit easier and forwarder. This does not affect her ability to spin exquisite shimmering mezza voce at will. When it comes to interpretation, sometimes one feels that efficiency rather than dramatic engagement is the keyword. I would have to see her in another role to make my opinion – for Butterfly, the reserve sounds authentically “Japanese” somehow. Something that deserved a bit more work is her Italian pronunciation. Although it is clear that she understands the text and offers now and then clever word-pointing, her enunciation should be crisper and more idiomatic. Some will point out that she does not look a 15-year-old girl – a problem shared by many sopranos in this repertoire. Although overweight teenagers are growing in number, audiences are only convinced by the sylphlike variety. To make things worse, kimonos are unkind to curves. Nevertheless, Hui He knows how to move graciously and, in her understated way, is quite acceptable in the acting department.
The rest of the cast does not reach these standards. Dmytro Popov’s baritonal tenor is desperately in need of high harmonics. His voice sounds bottled up and his high register simply does not flow or project into the hall. The tone itself is pleasant and rich, but do not expect nothing new during the performance – note one sounds exactly like all the others until the end of the opera. Ulrike Helzel’s mezzo soprano is extremely pleasant and she sings with good taste and imagination, but the role requires a voice a bit larger than hers. Veteran Georg Tichy is an engaged Sharpless, but his baritone sounds a bit worn these days.
In any case, even if the cast were really bad – or even if it were excellent – one would never be able to redeem this Butterfly from Juraj Valcuha’s indigent conducting. The catastrophe did not take long to be noticed – it would be impossible to realize Puccini’s creative use of counterpoint in the opening bars, so tangled and grayish the orchestra sounded there. When no famous tune was in sight, everything seemed shabby, uninteresting, lacking forward movement. The performance was decidedly below the level of the Deutsche Oper. In some sense, it was perfectly matched to Pier Luigi Samaritani’s 1987 production. Two short moments of inspiration apart, it just looked like the high-school-pantomime-version of Madama Butterfly. I know that the plot does not allow much creativity – but, once you decide to be “traditional”, please focus on detail. My advice – get a flight to Tokyo and visit the Kabuki Theatre. They know everything about doing a great job without breaking with very old and complex traditions.