Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" was heard for the first time in the United States in Washington's Belasco Theater in 1906. But not until last Friday night did a Washington audience hear the opera as Puccini first conveived it. Under Fred Scott's conducting, the opera was sung by the Opera Company of Boston at Wolf Trap in the original, two-act version that was booed at La Scala at its world premiere in 1904.
Four months later it was given again in the more familiar three-act arrangement nearly always heard. But there are many other differences in the two versions besides the change in the number of acts. Butterfly's relatives take over more of the action at the wedding in the original, including a drunk Uncle Yakuside who was scrapped in the rewrite. He has a certain charm that adds something worth keeping. There are also many passages in the music that differ from one edition to the other. Some of these are lovely, chiefly the extended orchestral interlude between the two halves of the original second act. And the "Star-Spangled Banner" is used ingeniously in places that Puccini cut when he reworked his now-popular opera. i
The score has improved unquestionably in the rewriting: for example, in passages of Butterfly's entrance and in the love duet that ends act one, Puccini found a far more effective shape for his principal melodies than he had at first. Friday performance was fascinating as a first opportunity ever to compare to two versions. It was also rewarding for its lovely set by Ming Cho Lee, and for its fine singing from a cast that made the most of every opportunity.
Sung Sook Lee, who sang the role here several seasons ago with the Opera Society, is a beautiful Butterfly, heartbreaking in her grief and exquisite in gesture and the expressive use of her fine voice. She had an outstanding partner in Eunice Albert's Suzuki, a portrait filled with pointed nuances.
Joseph Evans made Lt. Pinkerton into the most completely unadmirable naval officer seen in the role in many years. But his singing was a lyric joy, and his acting , caddish at times, was memorable. John Reardon made the consul Sharpless a flawlessly etched enactment, with acting that increased the sense of inescapable tragedy. His voice matched his manner.
Each smaller role was similarly made into the colorful mosaic Caldwell directed with great skill. David Evitts as Yamadori and Yakuside, Matthew Dooley as the Register, William Dansby's Bonze, William Cashman's Commissioner and Elisabeth Phinney, in the slightly enlarged role of Kate Pinkerton, all added strengths.
Puccini is the most dangerous of standard opera composers because of his love of having the orchestra sing "with the voice." Scott led a performance that had the glow of beauty at each crucial point, fully capturing the essence of the music and the drama. Both orchestra and chorus performed with elegance.