It’s a little disconcerting that one of the most beloved classics of opera is essentially a story of sex tourism and statutory rape. Or it would be, were it not performed so frequently—-more than any other opera in the U.S.—-that the grossness of its basic premise tends to get lost. Which of the countless productions of Madama (or Madame) Butterfly over the years most entertainingly tells the tale of a 15-year-old Japanese girl who is deceived, impregnated, abandoned, and ultimately (spoiler alert) driven to suicide by an older American sailor? How does the Washington National Opera’s stack up?
If you do not feel too icky asking, you’re probably an opera lover. The answer to the second question, incidentally, is quite well.
Back from the brink of financial collapse, the Washington National Opera, now a ward of the Kennedy Center, has struck gold, with a massive and mostly sold-out 14-show run. WNO loves Puccini, so while programs are set years in advance (WNO is currently working on their 2013 – 14 season), it is fitting that their post-bailout comeback is his big crowd pleaser.
Puccini’s indictment of American imperialism is unintentionally set at the dawn of Japanese imperialism, in 1904, when B.F. Pinkerton, an American naval officer on shore leave in Nagasaki, meets and falls for poor teenage geisha Cio-Cio-San, the titular Butterfly. She mistakes his horniness for true love, and is manipulated into a “marriage” that Pinkerton has no intention of honoring once his post is up. Cio-Cio’s total devotion persists following her abandonment, and at no small cost: She gives up her family, religion, and what she is told is a fine suitor, a thrice-divorced prince. All hell breaks loose when Pinkerton returns three years later with his new, American wife, to take his illegitimate son away from his onetime mistress.
The WNO has a rotating double cast to give singers time to recover between nightly performances, given the heavy demands on their vocal cords. This is especially true for Cio-Cio, who is on stage and singing for nearly the entire performance. Puccini’s opera calls for a spinto soprano, so while portraying a supposed teenager, the role demands an adult with considerable heft and range to handle the sweeping arias. Tuesday’s Cio-Cio was played superbly by Ana Maria Martinez, who has worked with outgoing WNO general director Placido Domingo before. Her expressions of love, self-delusion, and anguish were heavy and, above all, loud—-another of the opera’s demands, given the large orchestra for which the score was written, which at times nearly drowned out the less effusive supporting characters.
The character of Pinkerton has become a cultural reference of its own. It’s the name Weezer chose for their 1996 album that documented Rivers Cuomo’s creepy obsession with Japanese women. (Coincidentally of not, it was also the name of a notoriously violent private security firm whose thugs-for-hire worked as strikebreakers in labor disputes at the time the opera was written.) Tuesday’s Pinkerton, Brazilian-born tenor Thiago Arancam, was pretty good, though outmatched by Martinez. But it’s tough to stand out when your role mostly calls for you to smirk a lot and then not be around. Arancam’s callow act was true to the original archetype, which in olden times would be described as a “heel” or “cad” rather than “predator” and “deadbeat.”
Rounding out an international cast were Chinese mezzo-soprano Ning Liang as Cio-Cio’s maiden Suzuki and Korean baritone Hyung Yun as American diplomat Sharpless, both of whom were terrific. Robert Baker’s Goro, on the other hand, was a bit wan, spending much of his stage time flinching.
WNO’s set design is on loan from the San Francisco Opera. The last time WNO performed Butterfly in 2006 was also a rental, from Warsaw, with an experimental kabuki-inspired staging that drew mixed reviews. This year’s is more conventional though minimal, with set changes conveyed using sliding shoji doors and background projections (of battleships, torii gates and the like).
Madama Butterfly is the gateway opera that companies use to attract new audiences, and thus WNO is pulling out all stops to promote it – you’ve probably seen the bus ads. While they make it accessible and friendly – you can wear jeans! – it is still an opera, which is to say expensive (available tickets for Thursday start at $90) and long (2 and a half hours, including intermission). If as a novice you can get past the incongruity of Chinese and Brazilian actors playing Japanese and Americans singing to each other in Italian, it makes for a riveting evening.
The Martinez cast repeats on March 13 and 19; the alternate cast, with Catherine Naglestad as Cio-Cio-San and Alexey Dolgov as Pinkerton, runs on March 10, 14 and 17. There is a separate, young artist performance on March 15 starring Jennifer Lynn Waters and Jose Ortega. Placido Domingo conducts March 13, 15 and 17, and WNO music director Philippe Auguin waves the baton for the March 10, 14, and 19 dates.
Madama Butterfly plays through March 19 at the Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. NW. Tickets $25 – $290. http://www.dc-opera.org/seasontickets/1011/butterfly.asp