Yannick Muriel-Noah as Cio-Cio-San in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Madama Butterfly, 2009.
MADAMA BUTTERFLY by Giacomo Puccini, libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica (Canadian Opera Company). At the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts (145 Queen West). Runs to November 3. 416-363-8231, coc.ca. See listing. Rating: NNNN
I can't remember seeing a more impressive operatic mainstage debut than that of Yannick-Muriel Noah in the title role of the Canadian Opera Company's (COC) Madama Butterfly.
A former member of the COC Ensemble, Noah's become a major contest winner around the world and last year stepped into the part of Tosca for the COC when the scheduled soprano was ill. I didn't see her in that part, and in fact have only caught her in smaller roles with the COC.
But here, leading the alternate cast in Puccini's melodic tale of a Japanese geisha who weds the American naval officer Pinkerton only to have her heart broken by him, Noah establishes herself as a singer sure to have an international career.
Importantly, her success won't rely just the quality of her voice, which is big but never feels pushed; the warm sound just seems to flow out effortlessly. No, she's also a fine actor, and her Butterfly is a blend of detailed characterization and creamy voice.
In her hands, Butterfly is a believable teen - the character is 15 at the start of the show and 18 by its end - created without affected coyness, natural rather than over-acted. She's playful revealing girlish enthusiasm and sometimes teenage petulance. This is a woman grounded in love, sustained by her belief that Pinkerton will one day return to her.
In fact, that belief is a kind of religious faith: her rendition of Un bel dì, the opera's best-known aria, is a joyful vision, sung with wide-eyed ecstasy and full heart. When Butterfly's world is destroyed at the end of the opera, she follows the course she must take with steely determination.
Working with director Brian Macdonald, Noah presents a Butterfly who, from the start, is isolated from her Japanese family and culture; she has no one else to turn to for support but Pinkerton, even though (as this production emphasizes) the cultural gap between the couple is large.
Several of the other central performers are also strong. As Pinkerton, Bryan Hymel has a large voice but never bellows, as some tenors do. He could be a little more sympathetic early on, but it's hard to make the womanizing Pinkerton a really likable figure except in the love duet at the end of the first act, which he and Noah sing passionately under Derek Bate's expansive conducting.
There's more sympathy and a strong presence in Brett Polegato's Sharpless, the American consul who warns Pinkerton not to toy with his young bride's affections.
Anita Krause's Suzuki, Butterfly's servant, is well sung but doesn't have as much of a dramatic presence as she might, and John Kriter as Goro, the marriage broker, could also be more sharply defined.
The design, by Susan Benson (set and costumes) and Michael Whitfield (lighting), is first rate, soft in tone and avoiding all the stereotyped cherry-blossom scenery that productions often rely on to create atmosphere.
Even if you've seen this COC production before, it's worth catching again for Noah's debut. You can say you saw her when.
She sings Butterfly October 10, 16, 21, 25 and 29, with Adina Nitescu in the title role for other performances (Glenn Sumi reviews that production here)[rssbreak]