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WNO’s colorful, brilliant “Madame Butterfly” at the Ken Cen

Written By | May 10, 2017

WASHINGTON, May 9, 2017 – I’m not sure at this point how many performances of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” I’ve seen over the years, but it’s a lot. Most have been decent, several have been quite good, and a couple have been great.

WNO’s current production of “Madame Butterfly” at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House is one of the great ones. Saturday’s opening night performance was virtually flawless. The production’s setting and visuals were luminous, the singing was lustrous and the WNO orchestra was at the top of its game.

Ermonela Jaho as Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly) and Brian Jagde as Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton – photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.

Based on David Belasco’s American play popular around the turn of the last century, “Butterfly,” one of Puccini’s major masterpieces in an already distinguished career, takes a cheap, almost tawdry sailor’s tale and elevates it to an ethereal plane. Cio-Cio San, a naïve and impoverished young Japanese geisha, willingly abandons her family and her religion to marry Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, a callow young Navy officer whose U.S. warship has docked in Japan for an extended stay.

For Pinkerton, however, this is a sham “marriage,” a term whose is used by some sailors even today as a euphemism for heading into town in a port of call to meet up with a lady of the evening. When Pinkerton and his ship leave port, his part of the deal is over. But Butterfly thinks he’ll return to resume the relationship, leading to inevitable tragedy.

Puccini’s score for “Butterfly” is one of his most ravishing, blending lyricism, deftly impressionistic harmonies brilliantly interwoven with oriental elements, and, most surprising for those seeing the opera for the first time, bits and pieces of the “Star Spangled Banner” that emerge when the American characters are on stage.

Since this opera is so often performed, opera companies are constantly searching for new ways to present it, and WNO is no exception. This time, they’ve chosen a stunning new co-production originated by the San Francisco Opera and Opera Omaha. Colorful, yet spare and abstract, the staging seems to meld kabuki theater with touches of ancient Greek theater, while the costuming combines traditional Japanese with abstract modernism and international maritime semaphore flag symbols.

The overall design of the production arose from the imagination of Jun Kaneko, whose use of light and space brilliantly simplifies the opera’s story, freeing it in many ways to focus on both the music and the intense human emotions the score embodies while still providing the kind of spectacle that all opera goers crave.

It’s the use of light in this production that’s often the most astonishing, with its emphasis on bright, amazingly saturated primary colors that wash across the stage like the emotions they follow, further accentuated by marvelous abstract projections that develop like evolving works of art. While these kinetic projections are occasionally distracting, they also provide a sense of inevitable, cinematic motion, as if the “art” of life is evolving before us in real time.

It was around the turn of the current century that projected stage imagery seemed to take hold in the world of opera. Many early efforts in this regard were hardly inspired, and some were clearly deployed to save money on sets rather than provide value-added. Along with Gary Marder’s overall lighting design, the projected artwork in this production is mature, organic, and vital to the mental and visual concept Mr. Kaneko is attempting to convey.

Aided by this marvelously shimmering concept and Director Leslie Swackhamer’s formal, stylized direction, the singers in this production are positioned and shown to their best advantage, and the opening night cast seemed genuinely inspired to be involved in such a wonderful, elaborate and original realization.

Soprano ErmonelaJaho. Photo courtesy WNO.

As Cio-Cio San, the opera’s tragic heroine, soprano Ermonela Jaho sang (and acted) from the heart, creating an exceptionally touching and sympathetic young heroine whose powerful love for and loyalty to her faithless “husband.” Eschewing high drama, Ms. Jaho portrayed her character vocally as a traditional, submissive Japanese wife, a characterization that achieved its heartbreaking climax in her unusual, understated rendition of Butterfly’s signature Act II aria “Un bel di” (“One fine day”). Her performance sent the audience into raptures, and justifiably so.

It was good to see tenor Brian Jagde again in the somewhat ungrateful role as the callow Pinkerton. We last saw and heard him in this role in a rather wobbly 2011 production of this work by the Virginia Opera. Fortunately for Virginia Opera fans, Mr. Jagde’s portrayal of Pinkerton in that company’s rather bargain-basement production was one of its high points, and clearly his career has been on an upward swing since then.

Tenor Brian Jagde. Photo courtesy WNO.

His Pinkerton in the current WNO production is less callow and thoughtless than it is an accurate portrayal of a young man whose hormones have interfered with his common sense, leading him to completely miss what’s really going on in the mind and spirit of his naïve young bride. Mr. Jagde’s voice now possesses considerable force and power, and he used these skills to great advantage in this production, creating a memorable Pinkerton in the process.

The rest of WNO’s opening night cast sang splendidly for the most part, including the WNO chorus, whose work was particularly effective, achieving its peak effect in, of all places, the “Humming chorus” near the end of the final act. Clearly yet barely audible, as it should be, this sad, winsome chorus sets the stage by anticipating the opera’s closing tragedy, and WNO’s chorus offered a performance that was as cleanly and quietly articulated as Jun Kaneko’s beautiful staging.

In the opera’s smaller roles, mezzo Kristen Choi was a quietly dignified Suzuki and baritone Troy Cook was forthright yet sympathetic as Sharpless, the American consul, who tries in vain to connect Pinkerton to the reality of his situation.

Tenor Ian McEuen was a bit less successful as the scampering, fluttering yet cynical marriage broker, Goro, mainly because, at least early in the opera, he was barely audible. It’s hard to say whether his voice lacked power or if the orchestra washed over him a bit too heavily, but he’s certainly capable of improving on his opening night performance over this production’s long run.

Speaking of a long run, WNO has clearly decided to go for a box office “score” on this one, and will mount a total of 14 performances before closing “Butterfly” on Sunday, May 21. Happily, given the exceptional quality of this production, this decision already looks like it was a good bet.

So, if you ever wanted to see a truly fine production of this operatic masterpiece, by all means, try to get your tickets now to avoid disappointment. You won’t regret the decision.

Rating: **** (Four out of four stars)

WNO’s stunning production of Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” continues at the Kennedy Center Opera House through May 21. Note: Due to the unusual number of performances, major roles will rotate among various soloists. Also, WNO will be presenting a special performance of “Butterfly” on May 19, featuring many of the company’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists in key roles, with special ticket pricing. For information and tickets to remaining performances, ($35-300) visit WNO’s Kennedy Center “Butterfly” web page here.

Terry Ponick

Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Senior Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17