Washington National Opera's second 'Madama Butterfly' cast offers vague passion

Ana Maria Martinez as Cio-Cio-San in
Ana Maria Martinez as Cio-Cio-San in "Madama Butterfly." (Washington National Opera)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 2, 2011; 8:25 PM

What a difference a cast makes.

"Madama Butterfly" wore a very different face on Tuesday night in her second outing at the Kennedy Center Opera House. Since it's putting on so many performances of the opera - 13, a company record - the Washington National Opera fielded a second cast that was, on paper, every bit the equal of the first.

Seeing the same opera production twice in quick succession is a revealing exercise. On the second night, one thing that became clearer to me is the degree to which Ron Daniels's production, while laudable, suffers from stasis. Like so many opera productions, it doesn't do enough with the singers, beyond positioning them onstage and leaving them largely to their own devices. This results in a lot of big, approximate and not very naturalistic gestures. This isn't the singers' fault; most of them are hungry for more.

In practice, this meant that the end of Act 1, in particular, failed to catch fire, despite the fact that it is some of the most beautiful love music ever written.

What particularly occasioned these thoughts, though, was the performance of Thiago Arancam as Pinkerton, who could have been so much better had he had more help. The young Brazilian tenor embodies Daniels's vision of Pinkerton as a college-kid type a little too well - gangly and thoughtless and horny. He was puppylike and self-centered, but it wasn't clear that the gangly awkwardness was all acting, and he didn't seem to know how to go about building a performance out of the elements at his command. This was equally true of his singing; he showed a decent voice but little idea of how to put the notes together, and he sounded downright scared of his upper middle notes. They're there, if he can figure out how to display them; his concluding cries of "Butterfly!" were the strongest singing of the night.

As for the Butterfly: WNO has gotten two very good, and very different, sopranos. Catherine Naglestad, who sang the opening night, is all about cool but ravishing beauty; Ana Maria Martinez, who sang on Tuesday, is more fiery and visceral. In Act 1, this made her oddly less effective; Naglestad brought more of the reserved mannerisms of a geisha, where Martinez was more straightforward and emotional, and therefore less convincing as the character. But Martinez's conviction and passion stood her in good stead in Acts 2 and 3; indeed, they helped her fill in some of the areas of the canvas that the director had left blank. The smaller size of her voice was clear in "Un bel di," but her last act was very compelling. Visually, she and Arancam are the more convincing couple; they just could have used more help to actually support that impression.

The two supporting roles were, on the whole, stronger than the first cast: Ning Liang, in her company debut, was a fine Suzuki, and Hyung Yun, a former Domingo-Cafritz young artist, won my heart with the sheer vocal beauty he demonstrated as Sharpless.

One more cast change lies ahead: WNO will present a young-artist performance of the opera on March 15, conducted by Placido Domingo (who conducts three other performances as well). In the meantime, Philippe Augin and the orchestra continued to be the stars of the show - to the point, again, of edging the singers out.

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