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October 26, 2010

Baltimore Opera Theatre's 'Madama Butterfly' struggles to fly at the Hippodrome

As you know well by now, there's a lot of operatic activity in Baltimore these days, more than ever before, I imagine. (Quality, of course, is a whole other issue.)

Most of this activity is on an intimate level, very different in goals and resources from, say, the deceased Baltimore Opera Company. One organization does aim for something on a larger scale -- Baltimore Opera Theatre, an outgrowth of the much-traveled Teatro Lirico d'Europa. Its latest production, Puccini's "Madama Butterfly," was offered Saturday night at the Hippodrome and drew a very decent-sized turnout. This really is an opera town, it seems.

There is no mistaking the sincerity behind Baltimore Opera Theatre, or the value of its commitment to involve local young people in various capacities (supernumeraries, program book design, etc.). But, based on this "Butterfly" and last season's "Barber of Seville," there is also no mistaking the need for major upgrading. If Baltimore Opera Theatre is serious about establishing a presence here, there has to be a lot more than noble intentions.

To be sure, someone interested in getting the jist of Puccini's beloved opera would have done so on this occasion, thanks in large measure to Elena Razgylyaeva, who gave an accomplished performances as Butterfly. The soprano's top notes may have been uneven, but the rest of the voice had a consistently warm, well-centered sound, and she shaped her phrases with considerable eloquence. Her acting, too, was nuanced, especially in the Act 2 scene with Sharpless and the opera's finale.

Viara Zhelezova was a persuasive Suzuki, in voice and gesture. Orlin Goranov, as Pinkerton,

stayed on the surface of the role, musically and theatrically. He seemed to think he was singing Neapolitan songs, rather than Puccini, but, at his best, he produced a vibrant tone that filled out the melodic lines nicely. Gary Simpson was a sympathetic, somewhat dry-voiced Sharpless. Annie Gill sang Kate Pinkerton's few lines ably.

Guerogiu Dinev barely registered as Goro, one of the great character roles in opera. And I'm not sure what a baritone was doing singing the tenor role of Yamadori (or dressed more like a peasant than a prince, for that matter). The choristers got through their musical assignment more or less cohesively, but they didn't know what to do with themselves onstage.

Then again, it appeared that director Giorgio Lalov left most of the performers to their own devices. It was hard to detect much directorial guidance, let alone inspiration, in this production, which had serviceable scenery and costumes (credited to Lalov) and with occasionally subtle lighting.

As for the orchestra, better to draw a veil. I cannot remember the last time I heard such persistently wretched sounds coming from a brass section; intonation seemed to be a totally alien concept. The woodwinds were only marginally more reliable, leaving a thin string section to carry the weight. There's no use pretending this situation was acceptable by any professional standards. It wasn't. Under the circumstances, conductor Markand Thakar had his hands full just trying to keep things together in the pit, but he attempted more stylish sculpting here and there than he had during last season's "Barber" with the company. 

The use of amplification added an additional disappointment to the evening. As singers got closer to the microphones spread along the lip of the stage, their voices boomed absurdly (at least in the two locations I tried in the balcony). I'm no fan of any sonic enhancement in opera, but if it's going to be used, it can be -- and needs to be -- much more subly applied. 


Posted by Tim Smith at 6:19 AM | | Comments (4)


I concur that Elena Razgylyaeva was a fine - if not stellar - Cio-Cio San and that it was a viable introduction to Madame Butterfly - That is apart from the amplification which in my opinion - and assuming performers who can carry the notes - was absolutely unnecessary for such a small venue; the disjointed orchestra; the baritone Yamadori and his evidently less than enthusiastic performance; and the fact that Trouble/Joy was neither blond nor curly haired. (Seriously! Where was Yamadori at curtain call and how difficult was it to find a blond kid for the less than the half an hour that one was required?)

While I may consider other types of performances at Baltimore's Hippodrome, my Victorian view of opera etiquette prohibits another attempt at an opera at that venue. Equally disconcerting were the facts that the audience was permitted to take candy and drinks inside and that ushers disrupted the effect for those aficionados who enjoy immersion in the proceedings by letting people in and allowing them to block views for extended periods as late as half an hour into the performance.

Finally, I am disappointed at those fellow Baltimoreans who figured an evening at the opera deserves the same reverence as what is typically afforded the Rocky Horror Picture Show - For the record, it's not okay to express dismay, gasp aloud, or sing along at the opera! I also strongly recommend ensuring that your hearing aid is working so as to avoid having to ask your companion to narrate things. In addition, I suggest that you stay away from operas if you are not keen on being subjected to two and a half hours of a foreign language - Specifically in the case of Madama Butterfly, as the gentleman behind us called it, "Eye-ta lee-ann!"

"And I'm not sure what a baritone was doing singing the tenor role of Yamadori ... "

Obeying the composer's final instructions, actually. Although the 1904 premiere of Butterfly featured a tenor as Yamadori, the cast list of the final version of 1907 clearly lists Prince Yamadori as a baritone. A scan of the 1907 American edition of the Ricordi Score can be viewed at:

Because the original was written for a tenor, the part is notated in the G clef rather than the bass cleff. I suspect this is simply a case where Ricordi didn't want to go to the expense of re-engraving the part. The music lies easily within the compass of any competent baritone and has, in fact, even been sung at the Met (under the baton of Toscanini, no less) by artists listed as basses. The current Met production of Butterfly has featured baritone David Won in every performance I have checked.
Of course it is vital to the story that he be, as Goro puts it, "Il ricco Yamadori" (the rich Yamadori).

My experience with the opera is in buying the tickets through the internet. I ended up paying $457 for two tickets to the orchestra which originally cost only $48 each. When ordering the tickets, a pop-up screen from this broker came up and I was not aware of this. I am not that familiar with ordering and very trusting. When I tried cancelling, I wasn't allowed to do this. I wrote to Hippodrom and didn't get a response from them. I sometimes think that they might be getting a cut from this. I don't think that opera was worth $457. Please tell your readers to be careful with this scam. I don't want this to happen to anybody else and decide not to go to any other shows and support the arts. Very bad experience for somebody who just moved here in Baltimore.

It should be noted that all but a handful of the horrible orchestra are Bulgarian and are used in order to save money!

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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