Puccini's tragic tale, "Madama Butterfly," was given a fine showing by the New York City Opera Wednesday night at Wolf Trap. Nikki Li Hartliep, a last-minute replacement for Elizabeth Holleque, brought to the title role an opulent, expressive voice, able to run the gamut of Butterfly's many emotions -- shyness, joy, pride and pain.
Stephen O'Mara, as the faithless Lt. Pinkerton, not only had a clear, ringing tenor voice but also looked the part -- tall, lithe and swaggering. Sensitive acting and solid singing skills were offered by Richard Fredricks as Sharpless, the American consul, and Lucille Beer as Suzuki, Butterfly's faithful servant and companion.
As the tale unfolded, conductor Mark Gibson kept the orchestra under tight control, assuring a supportive musical backdrop that never covered the singers but was full-blown when needed to underscore dramatic developments. Beautiful set designs and exquisite lighting also enhanced the story.
One problematic aspect of the production was Hartliep's size, which belied the frequent descriptions of her as delicate and graceful and which was exaggerated by a large, unattractive bridal headdress worn for her first appearance. Also perplexing was Act 1's love duet, where the singers seemed to sing to the audience more than to each other.
The performance will be repeated tonight.