There is no reason why you cannot still have a perfectly presentable "Madama Butterfly," even if you don't have a Callas as a Butterfly or a Caruso as a Lieutenant Pinkerton.
Saturday afternoon matinee at the Kennedy Center - with decidely lesser performers in those leading roles - was, nonetheless, well worth the time spent.
You begin to concentrate on beauties that go unnoticed when this fragile, and flawed, work is dominated by vocal virtuosos.
The most conspicuous pleasure on Saturday was the subtlety of the orchestra. One doesn't hear much about this, because there is a tendency to think of Puccini as a singer's composer, and indeed few have ever created for the voice with more craft.
But, just as in "Boheme," the refinement of the orchestra - in terms of sheer sound - is something at which to marvel. Take, for instance, the serene end of the second act, with its offstage women's chorus, its delicate instrumental pinpoints and its mood of innocence and protection from the impending disasters of life.
Imre Pallop a conductor who has demonstrated her before that he is a young person to watch, made the most of all this. At his disposal was the City Opera's orchestra, in general one section one would have to go farther that in praise.
There were other compensations. More conspicuous than usual was the lyric eloquence of the music that Puccini wrote for Sharpless, the American consul in Nagasaki and the sort of nonmelodramatic figure you might have expected Puccini to make perfunctory. Baritone Dominic Cossa provided the dramatic high point of the afternoon in this role - both as singer and actor. In the duet with Butterfly, where Sharpless tries to tell her the marriage with Pinkerton is a charade that main baritone theme is Puccini at his best.
Otherwise he fails to sustain consistent levels of melodic strength as in, say, "Tosca's second act.
Esther Hinds as Butterfly and Enrico di Giuseppe as Pinkerton were quite competent in their ways. But, for me "Butterfly" is an opera that needs brilliant singing to overcome its flaws.
After the performance, to be repeated this Saturday, I played the Callas Butterfly, just to protect against being too far off base.
And just listen, at that most famous moment in "Butterfly," to what she does with the word "morir" (to die) in the aria "Unbel di." The death of an innocent is what the opera is all about, and Callas really lets you know it.