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HGO's Madame Butterfly flies with Maltese marvel, haunting lighting & a forgotten servant

News_Madame Butterfly_Ana Maria Martinez_Cio Cio San_Trevor Casey_sorrow_Lucy Schaufe_Suzuki
Ana Maria Martinez as Cio Cio San, left, with Trevor Casey as the child whose name means sorrow and Lucy Schaufer as Suzuki in Madame Butterfly. Photo by Felix Sanchez
News_Madame Butterfly_Ana Maria Martinez as Madame Butterfly_Cio Cio San and Jospeh Calleja as Pinkerton
Jospeh Calleja as Pinkerton and Ana Maria Martinez as Cio Cio San Photo by Felix Sanchez
News_Madame Butterfly_Ana Maria Martinez as Cio Cio San and Lucy Schaufer as Suzuki
Lucy Schaufer as Suzuki and Ana Maria Martinez as Cio Cio San. Photo by Felix Sanchez
Michael Grandage award
Director Michael Grandage is part of a dream team that already cleaned up at the Tony Awards for "Red."
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The production has been so popular that it's already added one extra performance. Courtesy of Houston Grand Opera

Warhorse of the western opera world, Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is given extraordinary new life in Houston Grand Opera’s 2010 season-opening production. Promotional posters in the weeks prior showed a dagger zigzagging through an exotic butterfly’s colorful right wing, surely foreshadowing performances that would be anything but predictable.

And while this brand-new production team and thrilling cast of singers certainly cut through long-established traditions, the end result is hardly iconoclastic. Rather, it is an interpretation in supreme good taste. At HGO, Butterfly has gone from an exhausted melodrama to a compelling narrative on honor and devotion.  

Soprano Ana María Martínez is well-known to Houston audiences, but not as Cio-Cio-San, since this is her first time singing the lead role. Her confident interpretation invites us to consider the fallen heroine’s transformation through each of the respective acts.

In the first part she shows us a young, idealistic bride. In the middle she is an enduring mother who won’t let the unpaid bills get her down, yet her idealism lingers as she dotes on her 3-year-old son. In the final act she becomes a scorned warrior who transcends every humiliation and redeems her honor through ritual suicide.

What a wonder to watch and listen as Martínez adapted her voice and acting accordingly. Before she’d had a chance to warm up, it seemed like the orchestra would overpower her, but she gained control with the second act aria “Un bel di vedremo” and  reigned supreme in act three, winning an enthusiastic standing ovation at curtain call.

I’d always thought of Cio-Cio-San’s servant and confidante, Suzuki, as the true coordinating character in this opera. She is the one who holds fast to Shinto traditions, the voice of caution and reason, the shield from Cio-Cio-San’s prying family and bill collectors. When it becomes unlikely that Pinkerton will return to the “little love nest,” Suzuki and Cio-Cio-San have to play out a kind of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane twilight in their lonely hill-top home.

Lucy Schaufer, making her HGO debut, sings confidently but plainly throughout, and it’s a little bit like she’s a forgotten player in this production. I was hoping for more pathos, a greater appeal to our emotions, not to mention a stronger assertion of her important mezzo lines. She tends to fade from Puccini’s many thrilling ensemble passages.

Everyone I spoke with at opening night hopes that Maltese tenor Joseph Calleja, who made his HGO debut as Pinkerton, will return to Houston. An arrogant, self-absorbed character in the opera, Pinkerton should demonstrate overwhelmingly confidence in his singing, and Calleja is a wonder throughout. He is a dream tenor of the highest caliber.

Director Michael Grandage (making his operatic debut) places the characters in intriguing situations of blocking and Christopher Oram’s set designs augment the team’s greater ideas about the scenario.

By way of example, the first act finishes with one of the most emphatic love duets in early 20th century opera. While the words are romantic and endearing, the situation is erotic and the music borders on a chromatic frustration not unlike Wagner’s “Liebestod “ It is not far-fetched to see this sequence as a “love-death.”

After all, the adult Pinkerton is leading his 15-year-old Japanese bride to her first sexual encounter and the loss of her profound innocence. Grandage shows them slowly ascending a stairway as family members and servants quietly disappear, a sophisticated touch, and each musical phrase takes them closer to their inevitable physical union with its disastrous consequences.

Movement director Nicole Tongue has brought significant sections of stylized movement, and at first it was a little startling to see the chorus and singers carefully manipulating their paper fans. It is, after all, only a week after DiverseWorks brought Yasuko Yokoshi’s brilliant Tyler, Tyler to Houston, an intimate production with classically trained Kabuki dancers, some of whom have spent decades learning how to dance with a fan.

Consequently, the performers here look a bit like they’re tourists attending their first tea ceremony, but it’s the aspiration that matters. Tongue’s efforts bring an authenticity to the production that has been mostly ignored in past productions.

The final revelation is Neil Austin’s exquisite lighting design, which is possibly influenced by his recent work on the Broadway production of John Logan’s Red, a play based on the life of painter Mark Rothko. The production glows with an energy reminiscent of Rothko. Austin’s plots take us from dawn to dusk several times over, bringing a haunting luminosity to the opera.

I haven’t seen such a subtle, rich design since Robert Wilson’s Lohengin at the Metropolitan Opera.  

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