‘Butterfly’ honors Japan, showcases young singers

Given the subject matter, a performance of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” is an odd thing for Washington National Opera to dedicate to the people of Japan. Nevertheless, Placido Domingo made this symbolic gesture of unity from the podium at the Kennedy Center Opera House on Tuesday night, leading the orchestra in a solemn rendition of the Japanese national anthem.

It would be unreasonable to expect the gesture to be anything more than symbolic: The struggling company’s special performance of the opera, featuring its Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, was being underwritten by a donor.

In this rather long run of “Butterfly,” Domingo was set to conduct late in the schedule, at a point probably out of earshot of newspaper critics. The orchestra played with the same amount of technical polish, but the score had none of the flow and assured, unified ensemble as under music director Philippe Auguin.

Confident singers sometimes overruled tempos from the stage, and less secure ones occasionally faltered at entrances. Domingo’s most positive contribution, as usual, was his celebrity: People craned their necks and stood up to get a glimpse of him.

The best part of this kind of young artists show is the chance to hear a career-launching performance, but that didn’t happen. No one had cause to be embarrassed, but there were no knockouts.

The Butterfly of Maryland-born soprano Jennifer Lynn Waters was the most impressive, with more than enough wallop in her forte high notes, but inelegant control over the softer register and forcing in the low passages that led intonation awry.

Mezzo-soprano Sarah Mesko had the most consistently beautiful sound as Suzuki, with a particularly robust chest voice. Aleksey Bogdanov had a broad but largely unfocused tone as Sharpless, matched in lack of focus and control by tenor Jose Ortega as Pinkerton.

Thanks to the generous donor, the ticket prices were considerably lower for this performance, and rightly so. The presence of far fewer gray heads in the audience showed again that the aging of opera’s audience is due, at least in part, to the sometimes prohibitive cost of admission.

Downey is a freelance writer.

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