Washington National Opera's triumphant 'Butterfly'

WNO returns to the Kennedy Center big time with a stunning production of Puccini's classic opera. Photo: Scott Suchman

WASHINGTON, D.C., February 27, 2011 Good news. We still have opera in Washington.

After a long winter hiatus, the Washington National Opera returned to the Kennedy Center Opera House this weekend with a stunningly elegant, heart-rending production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Gone for a long, magical moment—at least for now—were the persistent fiscal and personnel issues that have dogged this company for at least the past three years. In their stead, Saturday’s opening night audience drank in the kind of high quality grand opera that area aficionados still long for and deserve.

As most operagoers know, Butterfly is the unbearably sad story of an impoverished young geisha who’s oblivious to the fact that her marriage to Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, a dashing young U.S. Navy Lieutenant, is a sham, meant to occupy and amuse the callow American officer while he’s in port. Butterfly takes it seriously, abandoning friends, family, and Japanese tradition, all of which leads to tragic consequences after Pinkerton’s departure.

WNO’s Butterfly 2011 dispenses with the kabuki-style Teatr Wielki-National Opera sets from Poland that served it well for two productions of the opera, the most recent of which occurred in 2006. Replacing them is a spare, tastefully geometric set built for the San Francisco opera in 1996. Constructed to resemble a traditional Japanese house, it makes use of numerous, lovingly assembled shoji screens, moved silently to and fro by black-clad dancer-stagehands to advance and contain each scene.

Butterfly dance ensemble.

Butterfly’s friends and family are happy
about her marriage. For now. (All photos by
Scott Suchman for WNO.)

Costuming, designed by Michael Yeargan, who also created the set, is simple and largely traditional Japanese and American attire, hearkening back, though not literally, to the early 1900 time-period during which the opera is set. Ron Daniels’ understated direction brings all the elements into clear focus, staging the opera as the formal, intimate domestic tragedy of the heart that it has always been.

But what really makes this production come alive is the singing, particularly that of soprano Catherine Naglestad who stars in the title role of Cio-Cio-San. Radiant, luminous, full of devotion and passion, Ms. Naglestad’s voice explores and expresses every nuance of Butterfly’s simple, humble, yet intense character. Rarely has a singer brought this role so fully to life. Rarely has an artist allowed an audience to gaze so deeply into a character’s soul. It is a breathtaking performance, reaching its significant pinnacle in Butterfly’s signature aria “Un bel di” (“One fine day”), before receding into its tragic denouement.

Fortunately, Ms. Naglestad is aided by a marvelous supporting cast. A big hat tip to handsome Russian tenor Alexey Dolgov who, ironically, sings the role of Pinkerton, the original Ugly American. With a cocksure swagger and a clear, confident, authoritative voice, Mr. Dolgov at once inhabits this self-assured Yank, while also understanding his essential shallowness. As an actor, Mr. Dolgov also shines in the opera’s final scenes. Projecting his character’s emotional cowardice with considerable skill, his performance adds further weight to the tragedy of Butterfly’s final scene.

Pinkerton (Alexey Dolgov) and Butterfly (Catherine Naglestad).

Pinkerton (Alexey Dolgov) and Butterfly
(Catherine Naglestad) celebrating their nuptials.

Quite moving as well was the performance of baritone Michael Chioldi as the hapless, yet compassionate American consul, Sharpless. Sharpless is, in a sense, the conscience Pinkerton doesn’t have, advising the Lieutenant time-and-time again that, while they both know Cio-Cio-San is just Pinkerton’s current girl in this particular port, the young woman herself thinks the marriage is real, and is taking things very seriously.

To Sharpless eventually goes the uncomfortable task of telling Butterfly the truth. Mr. Chioldi seems to understand deeply the role of a professional diplomat, a person who, while representing his country and standing up for its citizens abroad, must also understand and respect the traditions and the people of the country to which he’s posted. Mr. Chioldi articulates all this and more, filling out what is sometimes treated as a throwaway role, with great understanding and compassion by means of superior acting skills and an assured, profoundly moving instrument.

Butterfly, son, and Suzuki.

Butterfly, her little son, and Suzuki witness
another dawn without Pinkerton.

In smaller roles, the remaining soloists added to the richness of this production. Margaret Thompson added compassion and surprising gravitas to her role as Suzuki, Butterfly’s friend, servant, and companion. Keith Miller was appropriately chilling in his brief appearance as The Bonze. Javier Arrey treated the hapless role of the doomed suitor, Prince Yamadori, with a skillful balance of high seriousness and puckish humor. Robert Baker was amusing as the pesky marriage broker, Goro. And Jennifer Lynn Waters was a surprisingly warm Kate Pinkerton.

The WNO Orchestra, chorus, and dancers performed well above average for conductor and company music director Philippe Auguin, who is quickly proving to be a fine choice for replacing the venerable Heinz Fricke.

This entire production of Butterfly is a superb example of what WNO can still do when it’s firing on all cylinders. Hopefully, as the advantages of their new partnership with the Kennedy Center begins to kick in this summer, we’ll all be treated to this level of artistic perfection in many productions to come.

Rating: **** (Four stars.)

Note: Given Butterfly’s numerous performances, certain cast members will rotate roles. Additionally, Plácido Domingo will conduct performance of the opera on March 8 and 15, as well as matinee performances on March 13 and 17. And, the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists will stage a full production of Butterfly on Tuesday, March 15, at truly bargain-basement prices. For details and tickets, which are going fast, visit the Washington National Opera website.

Read more of Terry’s work at “Curtain Up!” in the Communities at the Washington Times.

 

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Terry Ponick

Now writing on investing, politics, music, and theater for the Washington Times Communities, Terry was the longtime music and culture critic for the Washington Times (1994-2009). 

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