A 'Madama Butterfly' With Pipes, if Not Legs

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 6, 2006

When Mariusz Trelinski's production of "Madama Butterfly" first appeared at the Washington National Opera five years ago, you had to give the company an A for effort. Puccini's melodrama is one of the most beloved human-sacrifice dramas in the canon, so beloved that theater directors tamper with it at their extreme peril. Trelinski tampered aplenty, breaking down Puccini's sad, simple scenes into visual fragments, and reassembling them to mimic the cinematic cuts and close-ups of the movie camera.

But it was a deeply flawed production, and no better when it reopened on Saturday evening at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Trelinski gets about 20 percent of the emotional impact of the piece. But his production misfires most of the time, vitiating the impact of Puccini's music with distracting scene changes, badly timed entrances and a flat, two-dimensional look that isolates characters not only from each other, but from the drama itself. If Trelinski never gets his hands on another curtain rod -- he loves sliding scrims -- the opera world and "Madama Butterfly" will be better for it.

Flawed productions, however, often underscore the fundamental weirdness of opera. Despite all the annoyances, this "Madama Butterfly" is worth the effort. Its lead tenor, Arturo Chacón-Cruz, is a star worth watching, a singer with a light, firmly supported lyrical voice, a lovely legato and the ability to sound effortless. And soprano Xiu Wei Sun, in the title role, has a delicate sound that proves adequate for all but the most insistent passages. And while sometimes swallowed up by the orchestra, the light clarity of her voice, and its persistent but mostly controlled vibrato, were more than adequate to suggest the youth and sweet determination of the love-struck young geisha. Even though they exuded no real sexual passion, musically, the two stars made this a rewarding evening.

So the staging stinks but the singers soar. And the audience, on Saturday, rewarded the company with a standing ovation. Only to an outsider will this seem odd. Inside the opera house, if the music is familiar, the opera canonical, and the lead singers able to manage the loud bits without cracks or croaks or screeches, the whole evening is deemed a success. Opera is supposedly a venerable and respectable branch of the larger and serious dramatic arts; but it is, in practice, a queer art form in which anything, if wrapped in delectable music, is palatable.

For instance, pedophilia (Butterfly is 15 when she takes up with her American lover) and racism (the garden variety reduction of Asians to sex objects). Behave this way today, and you'll end up on NBC's "To Catch a Predator."

When the supertitles machine -- the projector that puts English translations on a screen above the stage -- misfired and projected the brand name "Sanyo," you had to admire the rate at which a changing world has outpaced the drama Puccini set to music in the early 1900s. Japanese companies now encircle the globe, just as the libretto says Americans once did ("Everywhere in the world the roving Yankee takes his pleasure and his profit," begins the signature tenor aria, sung boldly but lightly by Chacón-Cruz).

And yet here we have a drama frozen in a bygone era of American confidence and condescension -- a sailor buys a Japanese bride, dumps her, then comes back to "adopt" their love child, which drives the girl to suicide. An arts patron of the 21st century might ask incredulously: "They're singing about sexpats and Asian not-even-barely-legals?" Even the director, in the program notes, seems a little dumbfounded: "Opera has experienced a mystifying renaissance lately," writes Trelinski.

It's not so mystifying if one assumes that the whole renaissance is about the pleasure principle trumping reality-based ethical issues. And one might also argue that Trelinski's production is meant to underscore that odd fact, even heighten it, with classic theatrical alienation techniques. Which might explain why he slides a curtain, slowly, with fits and starts, all the way across the stage as Butterfly sings the signature soprano aria, "Un bel di." It's as if the director's saying, "You'd have to be a dope to enjoy this lacerating spectacle of self-delusion."

But no, Trelinski isn't Bertolt Brecht or Antonin Artaud. He's a film director trying to emphasize the girl's pain, but with techniques that, in fact, distract from it (all the more so because the Kennedy Center backstage folks can't seem to slide anything with an even, steady pull). And when Trelinski finally nails the real power of a scene, as he does when Pinkerton's ship is finally spotted returning to Japan and Butterfly gets a brief window of happiness, you realize his basic approach (mostly failed) is to find beauty in the piece, not underscore its ugliness.

Still, by universal consent, the opera world has decided that four minutes of Pinkerton's Yankee aria and four minutes of Butterfly's "Un bel di" is not a bad bargain for the money and the investment of a night at the theater. And these eight minutes are, in fact, very well done. And a few other minutes, too. The gorgeous choral singing that transitions from Act 2 to Act 3 was a pleasure. And Butterfly's maid, Suzuki, was sung with real gravitas and passion by mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Batton. High marks also for baritone Obed Ureña, a singer in a very small part, Yamadori, who made one perk up the ears when most Yamadoris are just a time-killing nuisance.

The company's general director, Placido Domingo, in the orchestra pit, led a brisk and effective orchestral accompaniment. He put some syrup in the upper strings, eliciting a sweetly dated, movie-house sound, ideal for the opera. One always wishes for more rhythmic definition from his conducting, for more urgency of pulse underneath the music, rather than just speed or fleetness. But Domingo grows as a conductor, and this is one of his best efforts to date.

Madama Butterfly will be repeated on Nov. 9, 11, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17 and 19. For cast changes or tickets, call 202-295-2400 or go to http://www.dc-opera.org/ .

© 2006 The Washington Post Company