Thru Feb 8
Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center
501 Texas Ave
At the end of the first act of Madame Butterfly, the eponymous courtesan sings, “The most beautiful butterflies are usually impaled with a pin.” It’s a line burdened with fatal prophecy that Puerto Rican soprano Ana María Martínez delivered with exquisite control on the opera’s opening night. Along with the refreshing enthusiasm of conductor Giancarlo Guerrero, Puccini’s old war horse wasn’t worse for wear this time around at Houston Grand Opera.
HGO originally presented this production by Michael Grandage during the 2010-2011 season, with Martínez making her debut in the role. In 2015, she makes a triumphant return as Cio-Cio San after singing the lead in last season’s middling Carmen. So triumphant, in fact, that she outshines everyone else. Of course, this is how it should be in opera—the soprano stealing the show. But the opening scenes before she entered were not balanced. The singers strained to project above the orchestra, making the luminous rose-and-lavender-lit set (a remarkable collaboration between set designer Christopher Oram and lighting designer Neil Austin) feel muted until Martínez’s entrance, her voice soaring off stage over a choir of geishas.
First performed in 1904, the opera tells the tale of a Japanese geisha, Cio-Cio San, who heedlessly falls in love with B.F. Pinkerton, an American naval officer. She is only 15 when they wed. By Act Two, three years have passed, Pinkerton has abandoned his young bride, and Cio-Cio San, now with a child on her hip, has left her own childhood behind. Yet she retains a childlike faith. Relying on love, she waits with unfailing hope that Pinkerton will return—a longing emphasized in this production by a beautiful orchestral interlude between the second and third acts where the stage rotates slowly in a circle as Cio-Cio San gazes determinedly at the horizon.
The famous riot that welcomed the opera’s premiere at La Scala (that, yes, included people barking like dogs) was most likely a staged result of Italian opera politics. Madame Butterfly, as with all Puccini operas, boasts magnificently rich arias and ensemble numbers with a fragile and suffering heroine at center stage. After the riots, Puccini excised some of the xenophobic remarks that set off the Italian audience, but the work remains less than politically correct by any standard—something that its lush music often camouflages.
Russian tenor Alexey Dolgov, in the role of Pinkerton, has a brassy, clear voice that I imagine will be divinely suited to the Verdi Requiem he will sing in Nice this season. In this opera, though, Martínez outsings him. The “Viene la sera” duet between Pinkerton and Butterfly at the end of the first act—the longest and most complex duet Puccini ever wrote—sounded lopsided. Martínez’s opulent voice carried effortlessly, with Dolgov’s straining to keep up. The octaves built into the vocal parts and doubled by the strings offered the ensemble a bit of grace, though, still making it a memorable moment.
The later “Scuoti quella fronda di ciliegio” duet between Butterfly and her faithful servant Suzuki, sung by mezzo-soprano Sofia Selowsky, balanced with more ease. Making her HGO debut, Selowsky sings with a unique zeal—she’s a singer to look out for in the future.
Second to Martínez, the other show-stealer in this production is Guerrero, making his HGO conducting debut. Say what you will about a plot that celebrates a number of ethically questionable themes, the music is super. And the orchestra did a stunning job with Puccini’s radiant score. Guerrero flicked his baton with fervor and authority, often flipping it far back behind his head before whipping it down to cue the timpani or, in quieter passages, dipping it gently in a precious harmonic moment. His spirit was enlivening and without doubt made this recycled production feel fresh and vibrant.
Other parts of this production were less enchanting. I missed the earlier production, but for those who saw this Butterflyin 2010, were the lanterns lining the raked walkway as tacky and misaligned? Was the geishas’ choreographed fan dance as painfully uninspired? During the sumptuous and melancholic orchestral interlude before the third act, did the rotating stage creak and groan as loudly? Even so, with a soprano like Martínez, HGO’s production retains its capacity to inspire.