The Wortham Center’s Brown Theater is packed with sharp suits, cocktail dresses and cheerful chatter as the audience flips through their Playbills while restlessly waiting for the lights to dim and orchestra to stir. It’s opening night of Houston Ballet’s Madame Butterfly. The crowd is hot, and rightfully so. As the first full-length ballet of world-renowned Houston Ballet creative director Stanton Welch, who first adapted Giacomo Puccini’s 1905 two-act tragic love story for The Australian Ballet in 1995, his dreamy rendition is hauntingly beautiful, artfully capturing the story of a geisha who gives up everything to marry a visiting American naval lieutenant.
Cio-Cio San, a geisha known as Madame Butterfly and played by Sara Webb (with Yuriko Kajiya and Melody Mennite performing on alternate nights), stands center stage in contemplative meditation at the beginning of Act I, reaching forward to the distance while mammoth fabric wings flutter behind her. The stage transitions to a late 19th-century home in Nagasaki, Japan, for a wedding ceremony between Butterfly and Lieutenant Pinkerton, played by Ian Casady (with Connor Walsh and Linnar Looris on alternating nights). Goro, the humorous marriage broker played by Charles-Louis Yoshiyama (also Oliver Halkowich and Christopher Gray) brings laughs to the tense event as intentions are questioned and families are divided. But regardless of opposition to their union, Butterfly and Pinkerton intimately dance and convince audiences of their love.
But the romance is short lived, and tragedy concludes the final act. Pinkerton abandons Butterfly and returns home to marry his—wait for it—fiancée. Years later, he returns to Japan and finds Butterfly and their young son nearly destitute, as she refused to get remarried to elderly Prince Yamadori, comically played by Christopher Coomer (Rhodes Elliott and Oliver Halkowich share the role), with hopes of Pinkerton's homecoming. However, the lieutenant and his new bride take the son back to America, leading a heartbroken Butterfly to end her life.
The breathtaking costumes and sets, both by Peter Farmer, help shape the moving story. Butterfly's over-the-top wedding day kimono is slowly juxtaposed to a disheveled slip-like dress at the end of the performance. Also, the late 1800s-inspired attire of the visiting Americans offer a visual glimpse at the opposing worlds Butterfly and Pinkerton represent, foreshadowing the disillusionment of their marriage.
Similar to the famed romantic tragedy Romeo and Juliet, the majority of the audience knows the ending, but thanks to the emotionally stirring choreography by Welch, the crowd still roots for Butterfly right to the bitter—yet beautiful—end.
Houston Ballet's Madame Butterfly. $25 to $139. Thru October 2. Wortham Theater Center. 501 Texas St. 713-227-2787. houstonballet.org