Opera Review: MADAMA BUTTERFLY (Lyric Chicago)

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by Barnaby Hughes on February 9, 2020

in Theater-Chicago


Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1904) is another one of those incredibly popular operas, like Mozart’s Don Giovanni, that is rendered increasingly difficult and problematic by the passage of time. Cio-Cio-San, the titular Madama Butterfly, has often been seen as a strong, independent, even heroic, woman. And in some respects she is. But Cio-Cio-San is also a victim, both of a bigamist husband, and of a law that recognizes the rights of fathers over those of mothers. Madama Butterfly’s suicidal ending remains tragic, despite the sheen of honor provided by the dagger of Cio-Cio-San’s samurai father.

Although this was not my first time seeing this opera, it was my first time seeing this production, which first premiered at Lyric during the 2013/14 season with a completely different cast. Revival productions can seem tired, especially if the sets and costumes have aged poorly, but with the right cast they can be thrilling. Fortunately, the set and costume design remains compelling because spare and traditional; and Ana María Martínez has the acting and vocal skills to make Cio-Cio-San an admirable and magnetic heroine. Despite being much older than her character’s fifteen years, Martínez endows her role with both youthfulness and maturity. And it is that magisterial artistry that keeps audiences rapt throughout the long second half, from her gorgeously sung aria “Un bel di vedremo” to her tender mother’s farewell. 

In contrast to Cio-Cio-San’s devotion to her American husband, is Pinkerton’s callous commitment to his Japanese wife. He first discusses her like a piece of property with the American consul Sharpless and the matchmaker Goro. Then he abandons her for three years, only to return with an American wife to reclaim his son. Brian Jagde plays Pinkerton well enough, but Brandon Jovanovich will likely play the role even better on March 4 and 7. Audiences that attend those performances will also have the opportunity to witness Lianna Haroutounian make her Lyric debut as Cio-Cio-San.

Other notable performances include Anthony Clark Evans’ Sharpless, Rodell Rosel’s Goro, and Graham Macfarlane’s Dolore, son of Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton. Rosel does not have the most beautiful of voices, but he is an excellent actor, which is why he is so good at playing slippery characters like Goro.

Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica’s well-researched libretto succumbs to much of the orientalism prevalent in the period, which in opera might be more of a positive than a negative, since opera tends to favor times and settings distant from one’s own. Yet, one aspect of Madama Butterfly that makes it altogether more familiar and yet more uncomfortable–at least to American audiences–is the presence of a chauvinistic American lead. Puccini humanizes him somewhat in the third act with an aria that expresses pangs of conscience, but those patriotic quotations of the “Star-Spangled Banner” can be disconcerting. Two questions the opera fails to answer is why Cio-Cio-San falls in love with Pinkerton in the first place and why Pinkerton abandons her. These questions, of course, are not what the opera is ultimately about; Madama Butterfly is not about the why of love, but the what.

Henrik Nánási conducts the Lyric Opera Orchestra with vim and vigor, driving the score along energetically, despite a plot that spans years in which little happens. This is part of what makes the present production so exciting, even during the long interlude between Acts One and Two. Here, the middle of the stage suddenly starts rotating as Cio-Cio-San, her maid and son, patiently await Pinkerton’s return. It’s kind of an odd moment when time seems to stand still, yet the set doesn’t. This Madama Butterfly revival wouldn’t be nearly so successful or enjoyable without Martínez and Nánási. They bring Puccini’s poignant score vividly to life and make a disturbing story almost sublime. And that is no small achievement!

photos by Ken Howard

Madama Butterfly
Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive
ends on March 8, 2020
for tickets, call 312.827.5600 or visit Lyric Opera

for more shows, visit Theatre in Chicago

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