Review: ‘Madame Butterfly’ at The Kennedy Center

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Gorgeous, ravishing arias by the legendary Puccini, an ethereally beautiful performance by Soprano Ermonela Jaho as Cio-Cio San (Butterfly), and an exceptionally ingenious concept and stage design by Production Designer Jun Kaneko are the primary glories of a stunning production of the beloved opera Madame Butterfly now being presented by the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center Opera House.

Cio-Cio San as Butterfly. Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Director Leslie Swackhamer stresses the theme of innocence as embodied in the idealistic and innocent character of Butterfly versus the worldly experience and somewhat callow demeanor of Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton (played with a deep, rich, commanding tenor voice by tenor Brian Jagde). Obviously, this theme is inherent in the Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa but this production stresses it with much foreshadowing and the stellar acting prowess of the two leading characters.

The theme of East meets West is also explored with intelligence and —often— droll wit as the manners and etiquette of the manners of Japan and the West (as embodied by the USA) collide with confusion and embarrassment.

Finally, the themes of time, love and death are constantly hovering or present in the opera with the Eastern concept of Death as part of one’s scared honor and a portal to another world of sacred ancestors. Time is captured as immediate and compartmentalized by Lt. Pinkerton in the stunning and long Love duet that concludes Act One (“Sweetheart, sweetheart, do not weep”, “Night is Falling”, “Sweetheart, with eyes…”, and “Love me, please”). Pinkerton views Butterfly as a charming woman to capture while Butterfly begs him to love her for life and waits for him for three years with extreme devotion.

I continually read a feminist underpinning here and throughout for the passion and adoring love of Butterfly is so much more evolved and committed than the quite shallow commitment of the Lieutenant. The other male characters are also totally callously pragmatic and lacking in any idealism such as Goro, the matchmaker (Tenor Ian McEuen) who tries to wed Butterfly to the opportunistic rich Prince Yamadori (Baritone Michael Adams). Bass Timothy J. Bruno’s character of Butterfly’s Uncle –the Bonze—shows no compassion whatsoever for his niece and renounces her vehemently in his defiantly effective aria of exhortation “Cio-Cio San!”.

The ravishingly sensitive and enthralling voice of Soprano Ermonela Jaho shone throughout the opera but Ms. Jaho was especially spellbinding in the famous aria Un bel di vedremo —(“One Fine Day we shall See”). As Ms. Jaho’s Butterfly sang of her fervent desire to see a ship with “a wisp of smoke on the horizon” and she stared out to sea, her voice was replete with vocal nuance and delicacy. (The scene reminded me of John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman as Sarah Woodruff stares out to sea waiting for the return of her lover). The audience burst into applause after Ms. Jaho’s aria.

Puccini’s lush and evocative music conveys elemental passions with such rich understanding of composition. Puccini’s music had such a mesmerizing power under the baton of Conductor Phillippe Auguin. The Washington National Opera Orchestra never sounded better -an incandescent, transcendent beauty of tone was evident throughout all thirty-four operatic components (including arias, duets, trios, and choruses).

Puccini’s mesmerizing power immerses the listener totally while dramatic musical peaks and valleys convey the emotional trajectory of this tragic opera.  A long orchestral interlude perceptively foreshadowed the tragic conclusion.

Photo courtesy of The Kennedy Center.

Poetic imagery and references to the natural elements abound in the Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.  The almost continual reference to natural elements such as water, rocks, trees, sky, stars, water, and so forth integrated with Puccini’s music to sublime effect.  I was often reminded of beautiful Haiku poetry as I read the projected English titles.

Ms. Jaho’s aria Con onor muore (“To Die with Honor”) was superbly conveyed and I was so moved with Ms. Jaho’s performance that it was hard to keep tears at bay. Ms. Jaho sustained her long operatic passages with utter vocal control and nuance.

Mezzo-Soprano Kristen Choi was a standout in her many scenes.  Playing the character of Suzuki (the maid of Butterfly) is no easy task as the character is so subservient and calm -that it could be hard to create excitement with the character. Ms. Choi never falls into the trap but, rather, she gains our attention with her lithe and lovely nuanced performance. Ms. Choi’s performance in the aria Io Scendo al piano (“I will go now”) was particularly riveting as she sang in horror at the false accusations hurled at her mistress from the rude Goro.

Baritone Troy Cook shone as the character Sharpless -as did Bass-Baritone Andrew Bogard as the Imperial Commissioner.

As mentioned earlier, prolific Stage Designer Jun Kaneko worked wonders with his multi-colored hues and pastels that added so much color to the stage.  Swirling patterns on the stage floor created depth. Constant movement was on display as colored ribbons and various screens with abstract figures and patterns dropped from overhead to help portray the psychological ambiance needed to portray the myriad moods of the characters and scenes. Blank figures filled with black ink to show psychological acuity. The triumph of Kaneko’s concept is that it subtly enhanced the elemental moments of the opera and never detracted from the Libretto.

Special mention must be given to the Lighting Design by Gary Marder, which may be the most evocative and atmospheric lighting I have ever seen at the Washington National Opera.

Choreography by Adam Noble was a knockout with very well-choreographed processions, bowing, and intimate moments.

Kudos to Director Leslie Swackhamer and the entire ensemble, the Washington National Opera Orchestra, the entire Production Staff, and the Washington National Opera Chorus and Dancers.

This is a Madame Butterfly that will transport your imagination to a world of romantic and tragic passion.

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one 25-minute intermission.

Madame Butterfly plays through May 21, 2017, at The Kennedy Center’s Opera House – 2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets to future events, call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or purchase them online.

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