HGO's Minimal Madame Butterfly

The Setup: Is there any opera entrance more musically ravishing than the bridal procession of Butterfly? A 15-year-old geisha, she's been "sold" by marriage broker Goro to American naval lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, who's on tour of duty in Nagasaki. Impatient, he has no intention of fully accepting Butterfly as his wife, and the ceremony's only a formality to get her into bed.

Accompanied by her girlfriends as they walk up the hill to the couple's future house overlooking the harbor, Miss Butterfly is besotted with love and joy, singing that she's "the happiest girl in Japan...in the whole world."

The Execution: Houston Grand Opera maestro Patrick Summers augments the shimmering radiance in Puccini's lush, exotic scene, while soprano Ana Maria Martinez, making her role debut as Cio-Cio-San, sounds fresh and ethereal as her silken voice sails over the orchestra, as if some fragrant breeze has ruffled the cherry blossoms. Although she lacks the full spinto power Butterfly needs for the later tragic scenes -- for most of the opera, she stands near the footlights so her voice can adequately project -- Martinez strikes a lovely figure in a kimono, and she's a convincing actress as the girl who must grow up much too fast. While not abundant, her voice is immensely pleasing and terrifically sensual. Making his HGO debut as cad Pinkerton, tenor Joseph Calleja never quite comes into his own or shows any real passion. He never falters -- he hits all those treacherous high notes -- but he never fully excites, either. Levi Hernandez as wise but useless Consul Sharpless, Lucy Schaufer as Butterfly's unfailing maid Suzuki, and Rodell Rosel as opportunistic Goro come off best.

The Design: After so much hype, the much vaunted Tony Award-winning team of director Michael Grandage, set and costume designer Christopher Oram, and lighting designer Neil Austin -- who all won 2010 accolades for John Logan's Red on Broadway -- gives us a Butterfly with an empty, ho-hum minimalist look. There's a sweeping walkway, with some decorative pine tree cutouts for Act I and gray, misty side panels for Act II, as well as a useless turntable and a shoji screen that characters keep sliding open and closed.

The Verdict: The staging doesn't do the beloved work justice, a tragedy in itself. Still, if you haven't seen it, go.

Through November 7. Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. Tickets at HGO's website or 713-228-6737.

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