The set-up: The girl in the chrysanthemum kimono never stays too far away too long.
Depicted through Puccini's most rhapsodic melodies that use a subtle pentatonic framework for its swirling overlay of Japanesque atmosphere, Madame Butterfly, a universally beloved opera, is continually on the annual top-ten list of most performed operas.
Written after Tosca, this beautiful and disturbing work (1907, then revised four more times until its present form) Madame Butterfly never fails to wring the audience's appropriate sympathetic response. It's bold and modern in theme, lush in score, and fairly wrenching in emotion.
Houston Grand Opera's production is blessed by Ana Maria Martinez in the title role, who conveys a feisty stubbornness in Cio-Cio-San, as well as bringing her patented shimmering sound, and by tenor Alexey Dolgov, as bounder Pinkerton. His bright tenor trumpets through Puccini's hothouse music. His music is so triumphant and Italianate, you'd think he was some sort of hero. Puccini never clues you in on his wickedness. Pinkerton fools us like he fools Butterfly. Puccini fools everyone.
The execution: The story's a great one, terribly tragic as we witness the innocent young geisha make one bad decision after another, all in the name of love. She falls for a cad, American naval officer Pinkerton, who marries the child bride for one purpose only. She gives up everything for him: her culture, her gods, her family, her friends. His leave over, Pinkerton departs, telling American consul Sharpeless he intends to find a real wife in America.
Ecstatically in love and intensely loyal, Butterfly waits patiently for three years for his return, rebuffing a marriage proposal from a Japanese prince, which would end her poverty and misery. "I am American. I am married," she stubbornly replies. She is also raising her young son fathered by Pinkerton.
Pinkerton returns with his new wife to retrieve the child, but is hit with waves of remorse for what he's done. Unable to face her, he runs away. Butterfly realizes the awful truth. In a heartbreaking twist of irony, she vows to give up the child, only if Pinkerton himself comes to get him. When he enters their little house overlooking the harbor of Nagasaki, he finds her dead from suicide.
The rest of the cast was OK, while some were actually inaudible. No one was particularly outstanding. Veteran baritone Scott Hendricks, as consul Sharpless, had a bad night of it, sounding gruff and muffled, which is not as he usually sounds. Mezzo Sofia Selowsky in her HGO debut, as Butterfly's confidant and maid Suzuki, has smooth smokey overtones to her voice that enhanced the character's conspiratorial qualities and brought out her downright steadfastness toward her mistress and friend.
The Michael Grandage production, a co-production with Grand Théâtre de Genève and Lyric Opera of Chicago, is a remounting from 2010. It's impressionistic and pastel with pine tree silhouettes, gilded stepped perspective frames, ubiquitous sliding shoji screen, and giant arc of wood walkway that will later creakily revolve for the famous "Vigil scene" with its delicate and moving "Humming Chorus." Neil Austin's atmospheric lighting is the third star of this show, imbuing each time of day with exceptional color and clarity.
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Maestro Giancarlo Guerrero began in fevered rush, forcing the singers to keep up, but slowly down considerably in Acts II and III (combined into one, bridged by Butterfly's vigil.) Maybe he got a call from breathless singers backstage to put the brakes on.
While not as hefty a voice as one would wish for Butterfly - to pierce through Puccini's thunderous outpourings - Martinez possesses a tone of unfailing beauty, with an abundant blush of freshness and purity that conveys youthfulness and unbridled passion. That's she's a consummate actor only adds to her complete portrayal of this innocent young girl, scampering in tiny little steps and giggling behind an upturned hand, then seduced then abandoned, then ultimately shattered, maturing with a vengeance, when her dreams of love get trampled. Her aching farewell aria to her little son Sorrow brings tears from even the most jaded of opera patrons.
The verdict: If the supporting cast had risen to the principal's lofty heights, this Butterfly would have soared that much higher.
Madame Butterfly continues with performances on January 28, 31, February 6, 8m. at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. Purchase tickets online at www.hgo.org or call 713-228-6737. $20-$290.