‘Madama Butterfly’ Soars With Visual, Musical Grace

Posted March 9, 2011 at 5:29pm

The production of “Madama Butterfly” on the Washington National Opera’s stage gives a classical take on Giacomo Puccini’s famous work, remaining true to the composer and his time period.

It’s a familiar story, even to those who aren’t opera buffs. Cio-Cio-San, or Butterfly, marries Lt. B.F. Pinkerton of the U.S. Navy. She renounces her religion and her family disowns her, but it matters not, for she loves her new American husband.

Pinkerton, however, views their marriage as little more than a trifle, something to keep him entertained while he’s stationed in Japan. When he leaves, Butterfly remains faithful while Pinkerton marries another. His return produces tragedy, and the opera ends with Butterfly committing suicide because of her heartbreak.

This particular production originated at the San Francisco Opera in 1996. The elegant set and sumptuous costumes are rented, traveling by tractor-trailer across the country. The 15-year run for the set and costumes guarantees a visual design that appears effortless. Different pieces designed to create walls and fences roll in and out seamlessly. The backdrop, which creatively uses lighting, casts a magical effect, whether it’s a starry night with Butterfly and Pinkerton singing their love duet or Butterfly carrying her child on her back at sunrise. Most enchanting is the moment when, in the midst of Butterfly and Suzuki’s famed flower duet, heart-shaped petals fall from the sky as the pair rush to decorate the house for Pinkerton’s return.

The international feel of the opera cannot be missed. After all, this is a play about a Japanese geisha falling in love with an American lieutenant, written by an Italian composer. The WNO’s casting of the lead roles, which alternate for various performances, reflects this. On one recent evening, the role of Butterfly was played by Ana María Martínez, a Puerto Rican-American soprano. Playing her lover Pinkerton was Brazilian tenor Thiago Arancam, while her servant Suzuki was played by Chinese mezzo-soprano Ning Liang. Pinkerton’s confidant, Sharpless, was Korean baritone Hyung Yun.

Martínez shined as Butterfly, conveying the innocence of a child bride while singing the soaring high notes required of the role. She convinces the audience of not only her love for Pinkerton, but her devotion to her son, Trouble. Arancam was a bit stiffer as Pinkerton, lacking an emotional resonance. That’s unfortunate for the production because, despite his voice, he’s hard-pressed to convince the audience that he would have enough depth to inspire any heartache.

Liang played a powerful Suzuki, whether she’s talking with Sharpless or collapsing to her knees when she realizes Butterfly’s plan to kill herself. Even Yun had a memorable moment when he curses Pinkerton for leaving behind Butterfly and begs her to reconsider another marriage proposal.

A crowd-pleaser was Butterfly’s son, Trouble, played by Viktoria Truitt. The child met every single cue, even at one point inspiring an “aww” moment from the audience.

Led by French conductor Philippe Auguin, the orchestra played Puccini’s music beautifully, filling the space. The best moments came when one forgot about reading the subtitles screen above the stage and took in the music with closed eyes. One such time was Martínez’s solo, “Un bel dì.” While it’s to be expected that one of Puccini’s most popular arias would get applause from the audience, the raw emotion from Martínez as well as the swell of music from Auguin’s orchestra created a moment where one became enveloped in sound.

“Madama Butterfly” doesn’t push any theatrical boundaries, but it is still visually and musically breathtaking, the kind of performance that inspires “bravas” from the audience.

The show, at the Kennedy Center, runs through March 19.