Opera review: Virginia Opera’s ‘Madama Butterfly’

We all know that the Virginia Opera is smaller than the Washington National Opera. It’s not necessarily a deficit: A small company can make up in inspiration for what it lacks in resources.

But the smaller company does itself no favors by emphasizing the difference, repeatedly doing the same operas as the larger company. Last year, Virginia Opera followed WNO’s “Porgy and Bess” with a “Porgy and Bess” of its own; this year, hot on WNO’s heels comes Virginia Opera’s own “Madama Butterfly.”

In real life, of course, a company that’s not even based in the Washington area can’t focus too much on what the competition is doing. (Virginia Opera’s productions are staged in Norfolk and Richmond before coming to George Mason University’s Center for the Arts in Fairfax, where “Butterfly” opened on Friday night.) There are plenty of reasons to do “Porgy” and “Butterfly”; both operas are reliable performers at the box office, and both WNO and Virginia Opera could certainly use as much cash in the coffers as they can muster.

And the Virginia Opera has a lot of other things to worry about. “Butterfly” was the second production since the abrupt midseason dethroning of the company’s longtime director, Peter Mark; it was probably the final company appearance of Mark’s putative successor, conductor Joseph Walsh. Mark has already formed a new company, Lyric Opera Virginia, with Walsh as executive director, and the Virginia Opera appears to be trying to excise him from its history — at least, as it was printed in the program book. The official greeting came from the company’s new artistic adviser, ex-New York City Opera administrator Robin Thompson.

Against all that dramatic background, Virginia Opera offered just the kind of “Butterfly” you might expect: an honorable small-scale production that, if it wasn’t about to erase memories of WNO’s also respectable, bigger-budget effort, had pleasures of its own to offer.

One of the hardest things about “Butterfly” is presenting something fresh within the established tropes — the sliding screens, cherry blossoms, kimonos and parasols — that the audience expects. Kudos, then, to stage director Dorothy Danner, who framed the whole opera as a flashback of Butterfly’s now-grown son, seeking to find his roots and make sense of his distant memories of childhood before his father and stepmother carried him off to America. This was tactfully done in a couple of silent pantomimes by the grown son, accompanied only by the thwack of a wood block, before the action began in both acts, and continued in the entr’acte between the two parts of Act 2. In that sequence, the grown son takes the hand of his childhood self and tries to penetrate beyond the screen on which his mother’s silhouette is projected.

This freshness of approach wasn’t, unfortunately, echoed in the musical performance. It’s here that the difference in resources between WNO and the Virginia Opera is most apparent. Walsh’s conducting was no better than pedestrian. And in the title role, Sandra Lopez offered a committed and even well-acted portrayal but had unmistakable difficulties hitting the pitch at the upper part of her register, which rather muted the effect.

The other singers did somewhat better. Brian Jagde has recently moved from baritone to tenor roles; his baritone side was certainly more in evidence in the first act, when his upper notes seemed not strained but simply uninteresting and slightly unsupported. He ramped things up to offer some nice singing in his final aria, although he remained a somewhat anodyne presence onstage. Levi Hernandez was a solid, warm Sharpless, and Magdalena Wor almost stole the show as a well-defined and well-sung Suzuki.

A small scale can be effective. Peter Harrison created a claustrophobic set, with sliding panels that moved nervously and peripatetically, all pushed to the front of the stage by a scrim through which one could sometimes see characters walking to or from Butterfly’s house before their entrances. This sense of constriction was very appropriate to Danner’s concept of the action as a dreamlike memory — appropriate, too, to the limited psychological contours of the story; Butterfly was truly trapped.

Theatrically, then, if not entirely musically, this was a “Butterfly” with much to offer and a sign that the Virginia Opera continues to chug along, casting a hopeful eye to the future.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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