The Washington Opera's "Madama Butterfly," which opened with a brilliant, moving performance Saturday night in the Kennedy Center Opera House, has already made a strong impression on Washington's opera fans. So strong that all available tickets sold out before opening night and a seventh performance (8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 27) has been added to its run.
All that before Saturday night's first performance ended with a 10-minute standing ovation. When word-of-mouth gets around, there may be enough ticket buyers to support a dozen performances this season -- but the Opera House and the singers will have to turn to other interests. It was clever of General Director Martin Feinstein to leave a three-day gap between the evening performance on Nov. 25 and the Sunday matinee on Nov. 29 that could be filled at the last minute .
It was also clever to bring back Francis Rizzo, the former artistic director of the company, to repeat the production that first got him involved with the Washington Opera in the 1976-77 season. Rizzo's directing talents have grown considerably since that earlier "Butterfly" and even since the Washington Opera's much more recent "Un Ballo in Maschera." This "Butterfly's" impact can be traced as much to its theatrical quality as to its musical finesse -- both of which are at a high level.
But above all, it was clever for the Washington Opera to cast the title role with soprano Yoko Watanabe, who has already triumphed in this role in Florence, Milan, Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera. It was her curtain call that triggered the standing ovation, which was then kept going by the rest of the company. She earned it with a performance that must have made many in the audience reflect quizzically on the compromises we often accept in this role.
Watanabe's success demonstrates a basic axiom: In this opera (as in any Puccini opera you are likely to see except "Gianni Schicchi"), success is assured if the audience can be induced to fall in love with the soprano. This happened almost as soon as Watanabe came on in Act 1, escorted by a limpid-voiced women's chorus and communicating eloquently in the special body language of Japanese women -- hiding her smiles delicately behind her hands or a fan, for example; kneeling and bowing with precisely the right gestures; showing shame and fear when her angry uncle, the Bonze, broke in on the wedding ceremony to denounce her for leaving the religion of her ancestors. As the act progressed from wedding and reception toward the beginning of the honeymoon, she was a study in modesty blended with eagerness and finally escalating into passion.
The audience's affection grew to admiration in Act 2, as she showed the heroine's progress from childish fragility to adult strength, her unrealistic but touching faith in the departed father of her child, and her resolution in choosing poverty and fidelity rather than marriage to a prince. The admiration began turning to pity at about the time Watanabe sang "Un bel di" in an ideal blend of acting and vocalizing, and it became a sympathy deep beyond words as false hopes died violently in Act 3.
This is a Butterfly of convincing dramatic presence and depth as well as impressive vocal qualities. She even uses what amounts to two different voices -- that of a young girl about to be married in Act 1; that of a mature, experienced woman and a mother (though still in her teens) in the later acts. She deepens and ennobles a work of art that can easily descend to facile sentimentality if it is not approached with conviction, care and intense dedication.
It is a giant step from her importance in the opera to that of the tenor, but Richard Leech did well with the role of B.F. Pinkerton. His blond good looks stood out effectively, his voice had the right freshness and well-controlled nuance, and he acted convincingly both as the sexual opportunist of Act 1 and the victim of belated remorse in Act 3. Gaetan Laperriere (making his company debut, like Watanabe and Leech) gave clear, effective theatrical and vocal definition to the role of Sharpless, and Suzanna Guzman was an effective, rather self-effacing Suzuki. Jonathan Green found exactly the right nuances of venality for the role of Goro. And Alan Held (a last-minute substitute) performed briefly but impressively as the Bonze.
Conductor Guido Ajmone-Marsan, making his Washington Opera debut, had the music onstage and in the pit well in hand. His control of orchestral nuance contributed significantly to the production's effectiveness, particularly in the ecstatic love music that ends Act 1 and raises Puccini's orchestra to a near-Wagnerian level of wordless communication.
Act 1, the busiest and most crowded, was also the prime showcase for Rizzo's stage directing. He showed an ease and focus in the visual disposition of human figures (soloists, chorus and supernumeraries) that was not evident in his "Ballo," and he supplied apt stage business (for example, servants puzzling over a tennis racket in Pinkerton's luggage) that enriched the opera's thematic overtones. Rizzo is also responsible for the surtitles, which are probably the best in the business -- echoing, as they do, the libretto's word rhythms as well as its sentiments.
Lighting has more dramatic relevance in "Madama Butterfly" than in most operas, and Joan Sullivan's lighting design was exactly right. Ming Cho Lee's single set is still atmospheric and effective, though a couple of trees in it had branches attached at awkwardly unrealistic angles.