By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 28, 2011; C12
Washington has two orchestras that passionately love their new music directors. The National Symphony Orchestra is enjoying its honeymoon with Christoph Eschenbach. Next door at the Opera House, the Washington National Opera Orchestra is, if anything, even more enamored of Philippe Auguin. On Saturday night, when Auguin walked to the podium to conduct the first performance of WNO's new "Madama Butterfly," a dark rumble rose from the orchestra pit: feet stamping on the floorboards, the musicians' way of showing strong approval before the show had even begun, and the way they greet Auguin every time he takes the stage.
Auguin deserves the acclaim. Having led a powerful "Gotterdammerung" in 2009, and then a decent "Salome" earlier this season, he is showing his chops in the Italian repertory for the first time here with "Butterfly"; and he has chops aplenty. He led a strong, ardent and often meltingly beautiful reading of the score. Indeed, the orchestra took center stage; it sometimes threatened to overpower the singers, and was often more interesting, musically, than they were. The evening conformed to a time-hallowed opera stereotype: The real passion was in the music.
This is not to knock a crowd-pleaser of an evening. It had better be crowd-pleasing, since WNO has scheduled a record 13 performances of the opera with two different casts (through March 19), as well as a performance with the Domingo-Cafritz young artists on March 15. Struggling companies turn to "Butterfly" to boost sales at the box office, and it's working for WNO so far: Ticket sales are robust, and opening night was sold out. So it was a good thing that Saturday's performance was so thoroughly inoffensive. Everyone onstage was almost obediently good; it was left to Auguin's orchestra to sound reminders of love and passion beyond demureness in the pit.
Butterfly, or Cio-Cio-San, is the evening's natural focus, requiring a soprano who can act like a 15-year-old girl while singing with the force and passion of a whole culture. Saturday marked the WNO debut and the first Cio-Cio-San of Catherine Naglestad, an American soprano with a major career in Europe and not yet the same level of regard at home, and it was an auspicious beginning. Naglestad has a beautiful voice and uses it like a pro; she delivered some gorgeous singing, particularly in the clear upper register.
I had only one caveat: the dramatic coolness. It takes a lot of calculating to sing a role as challenging as Butterfly, but in Naglestad's case the calculation was sometimes visible enough to dull the dramatic edge: a pause before a high note, a slightly too-deliberate leap into fortissimo in "Un bel di." It didn't keep her from turning in a fine performance; but it wasn't, yet, a performance that fully melted your heart, though this may change as she gets more performances under her belt.
She wasn't helped by Ron Daniels's production, which, though basically very good (there's a reason it has stayed around since its first staging in San Francisco in 1996), had the same tendency to underplay dramatic moments. Butterfly's first vocal entrance is offstage, accompanied by a women's chorus; Daniels brought the women onstage, where they sang in a beautiful controlled hush (some of the best singing I've heard from the WNO chorus) that was undermined by their lining up and twirling their parasols like some form of Japanese chorus line. There were other similar moments all the way through to Butterfly's rather anticlimactic death, slicing the sword across her throat while Pinkerton remained unaccountably offstage.
Daniels's production employs a "Butterfly" vocabulary that seems familiar now in part because other directors have used it since the production first opened. Gone are the cherry blossoms and Japanese vistas; instead, sliding screens cross the stage, now defining the enclosed space of Butterfly's house, now opening to reveal a bedroom, the projection of Pinkerton's ship on the back wall or simply evocative empty space. Stagehands dressed and veiled in black, modeled on Japanese kabuki tradition, bring in and remove props and slide the screens. It's the same spare, modern, Japanese-inspired idiom used by Anthony Minghella in the English National Opera "Butterfly" that was most recently seen at the Metropolitan Opera, and it's a fresh and effective way to get this story across.
But to be fully effective, you need a few more sparks onstage. Alexey Dolgov was a solid Pinkerton, credible as a thoughtless American surfer type, up for good times and his own amusement; but given that the production focused on the rank sexual passion that is Pinkerton's prime motive for all of Act 1, his delivery seemed awfully tame. It may seem mean-spirited to criticize two very good singers, but I think they can do better; when the orchestra is the main focus of one of the most beautiful love duets in opera, there's room for a little adjustment.
The supporting cast was also strong: Michael Chioldi and Margaret Thompson were redoubtable as Sharpless (the good-hearted American consul) and Suzuki (the devoted maid); Robert Baker was a decent Goro (the marriage broker), and Javier Arrey, a current member of WNO's young artist program, acquitted himself well as Butterfly's would-be suitor Prince Yamadori. Keith Miller was, sadly, slightly pale as the Bonze, not communicating the character's full power or menace - the most egregious example of the orchestra overpowering the action.
Still, it was a fine "Butterfly," with plenty of promise to come. There aren't many Cio-Cio-Sans around with the vocal ability of Naglestad. On March 1, WNO unveils its second cast, including Ana Maria Martinez in the lead. And Auguin continues to show that WNO has got someone worth having. For a company as shaky as WNO has been in recent years, this "Butterfly" is a happy occasion.