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No limits

The scene: a vocal audition, sometime in the past. A young, blond soprano approaches the podium. Her aria: “Un bel di.” She sings. Before she gets to the second “Chi sara” she’s rudely interrupted.

“STOP SINGING! YOU CALL THIS A VOICE? TEBALDI HAD A VOICE. FLAGSTAD HAD A VOICE. YOU… YOU HAVE NOTHING! YOU SQUEAK! YOU SOUND LIKE A MOUSE! OUT!!!!!”

I don’t know if this ever happened to Kristine Opolais, but I could certainly picture it happening to her. She doesn’t have a traditionally beautiful voice the way Renata Tebaldi or Mirella Freni had beautiful voices. You don’t put on your headphones and think, “Wow, what I want to do is listen to Kristine Opolais.” Her voice is not large, nor does it really bloom on top, nor does it have that velvety plushness that’s so prized among opera fans. When Opolais made her entrance as Cio-Cio=San, she hit a D-flat that was secure, on pitch, but didn’t really float, and to be honest, sounded harsh. “Un bel di” had some gorgeous phrasing, but again, the voice doesn’t really bloom and so if you played it as a solo track, one might wonder what the fuss was all about.

In the end, all those vocal limitations didn’t matter in the least. Opolais was absolutely shattering in this marathon role. She’s a perfect example of how it’s not the voice you have, but what you do with it. For one, that smallish, somewhat edgy voice (sometimes reminiscent of Renata Scotto) worked to her advantage—it actually sounded like a desperate teenaged girl. She’s a very musical singer, who never tried to sing over the orchestra, but rather with it, shaping Puccini’s vocal lines so expertly that every emotional climax made the maximum impact. So much so that after “Trionfa il mio amor!” the audience brava-ed over the orchestra in a spontaneous ovation.

Physically she doesn’t resemble a typical Butterfly. She’s a tall Nicole Kidman lookalike. But theater is about illusion, and she tilted her head, bent her knees ever so slightly, and most of all, used her large eyes to convey the character’s youth and naiveté. Her best scene was “Tu, tu, piccolo iddio”—an absolutely amazing feat of both singing and acting. She broke from the stylized blocking of Anthony Minghella’s production by writhing on the floor in death throes before finally expiring. I definitely don’t think Opolais has a voice that can sing everything, but she’s a treasurable, intelligent artist and we are lucky to have her.

Otherwise the performance had the feel of a B-cast revival. I first heard James Valenti when he was with the NYCO (in Pinkerton, no less) and thought then that he had a small, unmemorable voice with a somewhat constricted top and a wooden stage presence. At the same time I heard many other City Opera talents who I thought were remarkable and I was confident that I’d soon hear about them in Vienna and London, having wonderful international careers. He wasn’t on my radar at all to “make it.” So many years later, the impression is the same—a provincial, unremarkable tenor who with his “yearbook kind of handsome” looks somehow has a decent international career.

He really can’t project his voice at all, and when he applies any pressure to the top, it’s not pretty. The livestream broadcast showed some off-pitch screaming. Tonight he tried a different approach. He kind of marked anything above the staff, touching it lightly before gladly letting either Opolais or the orchestra swallow him up. This made for a very anti-climactic love duet, as the music is all about Pinkerton’s voice soaring with the music as he becomes more and more aroused , and that was the exactly the time Valenti decided to dial down his voice and mark. But I guess in his case it’s better to be seen and not heard. Bleh.

Dwayne Croft’s baritone has shrunk and dried up over time but it’s still a pleasing sound, and he did more with the role of Sharpless than most baritones. He had good chemistry with Opolais in their Act Two dialogue. Maria Zifchak was a properly touching Suzuki and her voice also blended well with Opolais in the Flower Duet. An expected surprise was Yamadori (Jeongcheoi Cha) who only had a few lines but has a big, booming, rich voice that certainly deserves more than this compromario part.

Marco Armiliato apparently has the affection of divas, judging by the way I’ve seen almost all of them kiss and fawn over him during curtain calls. I can understand why. It’s not the most exciting conducting, but he’s certainly sensitive to their needs and careful to never overpower them.

Minghella’s production is stunning visually—so stunning, in fact, that it looks more like Oriental exotica than Italian verismo, and the stylized use of mime, dance, and puppets (for Trouble) took the grittier edges off Puccini’s story. It takes a Butterfly with a very strong personality to make the audience overlook the fans, and the sliding doors, and the raining petals, and remember that this is possibly opera’s saddest story, so painful that Act Two is hard for me to even watch. Therefore, I don’t think it’s an accident that during many moments, Opolais walked to front center stage, opened her arms, and seemingly stepped out of the production, to sing directly to the audience. This is a singer who understands the soul of Cio Cio San. Brava!

Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

175 comments

  • Late to comment here, but once again great review Ivy. I heard two performances -- Apr 9th (in the house) and Apr 15th (Sirius). Let me first state that although I enjoyed both, hearing and seeing it live was monumental both for KO’s vocal and dramatic performances, but there were major differences in the vocal performance between the two:

    - The sound of KO’s voice – thrilling live – was not as marked on the broadcast. A recording that sounded like what I heard live could stand on its own, even apart from her dramatic performance.
    - Her vocal performance was more nuanced on the 15th – as Milady has said, some beautifully floated pianos. On the 9th she didn’t sing anything softer than mezzoforte.
    - On the 9th she broke the phrase, took a breath, and then attacked a high note 3 times: the Dflat in the entrance, the C at the end of Act I, and the Bflat on vo’ troncar at the end of Che tua madre, each time singing the high note on “ah”. Same on the 15th, except she sang through to the Bflat. It may just be my limited experience, but I have never heard these particular puntature before, and to me they were a detraction from her performance.