Houston Ballet Delivers a Satisfying Madame Butterfly

Ian Casady and Sara Webb in the Houston Ballet production of Stanton Welch's Madame Butterfly
Ian Casady and Sara Webb in the Houston Ballet production of Stanton Welch's Madame Butterfly
Photo by Amitava Sarkar / Courtesy of Houston Ballet

There’s an underlying sense of dread in Stanton Welch’s Madame Butterfly. The tragedy, set in Nagasaki, Japan, in the early 1900s, follows Cio-Cio San, a young geisha who enters into an arranged marriage with Lieutenant Pinkerton, an American naval officer. He eventually abandons her, returns home and marries his American fiancée. Years later, he returns to Japan, not to reunite with Cio-Cio San but to take custody of their young son. Heartbroken, Cio-Cio San gives up her son and commits suicide.

The audience knows the story’s terrible ending from the beginning and choreographer Stanton Welch smartly foreshadows Cio-Cio San’s coming misery from the opening scenes (Pinkerton is oblivious regarding Cio-Cio San’s situation even after her family disowns her because of the marriage). There’s no way to give the story a happy ending, but Welch provides a satisfying though incredibly sad tale.

Sara Webb performs as Cio-Cio San, also known as Butterfly (Yuriko Kajiya and Melody Mennite appear on alternate nights), while Ian Casady appears as Lieutenant Pinkerton (Connor Walsh and first soloist Linnar Looris also share the role). Over the course of the two-act ballet, Webb’s Cio-Cio San grows from a young, innocent girl to a woman passionately in love to a woman horribly betrayed. Casady’s Pinkerton is sadly, but appropriately, vacuous throughout.

After a wedding ceremony disrupted by Cio-Cio San’s drunken uncle, who publicly renounces her, the pas de deux between Cio-Cio San and Pinkerton at the end of the first act is elegant and seductive. The couple, it would seem, is happy and in love. Cio-Cio San becomes increasingly free and blissful as the two approach the climactic end. One of the ballet’s most memorable images is of Cio-Cio San as she lies down on the wedding bed and willingly gives herself to Pinkerton. Her hand reaches up toward the ceiling in pleasure and then reaches up just a little bit more in ecstasy as the curtain falls.

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Soloist Oliver Halkowich is Sharpless, Pinkerton’s friend who tries to warn him about the sacrifice Cio-Cio San is making to marry him. Halkowich does an outstanding job (Jared Matthews and soloist Christopher Coomer also appear in the role). While Pinkerton is oblivious to the destruction he wreaks, Sharpless is keenly aware of it. He displays increasing grief over the situation as Pinkerton acts more and more cavalier, and his pas de trois with Cio-Cio San and her maid Suzuki near the end of act II is a highlight of the evening.

Of special note is Charles-Louis Yoshiyama as Goro, the marriage broker (soloists Oliver Halkowich and Christopher Gray also share the role). He goes from being happy and almost comical at Cio-Cio San and Pinkerton’s wedding to decidedly ugly and threatening when an abandoned Cio-Cio San later refuses to enter a second marriage with an elderly Prince Yamadori at Goro’s bidding. (The prince was played by Christopher Coomer on opening night; Rhodes Elliott and Oliver Halkowich also appear in the role.)

The costumes, while beautiful, were sometimes cumbersome and overpowering. When Cio-Cio San arrives for the wedding, it’s understandable that she’s wearing a multilayered kimono, her head’s covered in a long veil and she’s using a fan to further conceal her face. Her garments are removed throughout the act and by the time she makes it to the wedding bed with Pinkerton, she’s wearing only a gauzy gown.

The scheming and unscrupulous Goro wears a heavy, oversized jacket and wide pants that conceal the beauty of his bravura jumps. Cio-Cio San’s drunken uncle and Prince Yamadori labor under heavy robes. Beautiful heavy robes, yes, but still heavy robes that obscure everything but the grandest of gestures.

The set, a simple construction of screens and walls that open and close to reveal various locations, works well. Both the costume and the scenic design are by Peter Farmer. 

The lighting, mostly modest, becomes unhappily noticeable when Cio-Cio San dances downstage in a white spotlight while the rest of the cast and set remain lit in soft colors. The scene isn’t a flashback or a dream, so it’s unclear why lighting designer Lisa J. Pinkham chose to separate her visually from the rest of the action.

Charles-Louis Yoshiyama and Karina Gonzalez in the Houston Ballet production of Stanton Welch's Son of Chamber Symphony
Charles-Louis Yoshiyama and Karina Gonzalez in the Houston Ballet production of Stanton Welch's Son of Chamber Symphony
Photo by Amitava Sarkar / Courtesy of Houston Ballet

While Madame Butterfly has been seen by Houston audiences before, the accompanying one-act abstract Son of Chamber Symphony is making its Houston Ballet premiere. With choreography by Welch and staging by Gerard Charles, Son of Chamber Symphony is set to minimalist, deconstructed music by John Adams. 

Shown in three movements, the work features a pas de deux in each: Karina Gonzalez and Charles-Louis Yoshiyama in the first movement, Yuriko Kajiya and Christopher Coomer in the second and Katharine Precourt and Chun Wai Chan in the third. Kerek Dunn, Christopher Gray, Shu Kinouchi and Hayden Stark also appear in the first movement, while Bridget Kuhns, Jacquelyn Long, Mackenzie Richter, Madeline Skelly, Alyssa Springer and Natalie Varnum appear in the third.

The dancers' actions were clean and classical but completely contemporary in feeling. Welch added tension to the third movement with a crisp bourree performed by a circle of women; later they bounced with a sense of urgency. The relatively simple movement wasn't frantic by any means, but managed to convey an intensity. Gonzalez, always performing with flawless technique, managed to completely change her stance with a slight bending of a knee or flexing of a foot. 

The lighting and scenic design by Jack Mehler and costume design by Travis Halsey, all in muted colors, were excellent. At the opening, the set seemed to be a backdrop of large white squares bordered by thick black lines and the costumes purple and green. A subtle change in lighting, and everything turned to gray or blue or a deeper purple. Unobtrusive but evident, the changing lights, sets and costumes added another layer of interest to the non-narrative work. 

The orchestra performed Adams's atonal music exceptionally well. Gonzalez's and Yoshiyama's precise turns and low lifts were buoyed by the exact breaks that punctuated the score. The strings and oboes were especially effective during Son of Chamber Symphony.

The Houston Ballet performs Madame Butterfly and Son of Chamber Symphony at 7:30 p.m. September 24 and 30, and October 1; 2 p.m. September 25 and October 1 and 2 at the Wortham Theater Center,  501 Texas. For information, call 713-227-2787 or visit houstonballet.org. $25 to $139.

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