“Madame Butterfly” is an opera company’s ace in the hole: It’s touching and beautiful, and audiences love it. In 2011, the Washington National Opera offered a stylized new production with Japanese touches, which had originated in San Francisco, ardently conducted by Philippe Auguin. On Saturday night, six years later WNO offered another stylized new Japanese-influenced production, which had originated in San Francisco, ardently conducted by Philippe Auguin. Herein lies the challenge of “Madame Butterfly”: Audiences, and critics, see it a lot, and everyone wants to find a new way to put it on — but not too new, because you don’t want to drive audiences away.
The happy news is that this time, WNO has pulled it off. This “Butterfly” is very well sung and lovely to look upon. Ermonela Jaho, who made her WNO debut as Butterfly, is a true singing actress, conveying emotion and character through her voice, so that Butterfly’s familiar plight became freshly heartbreaking. Her Pinkerton, Brian Jagde, has improved by leaps and bounds since he sang the role at the Virginia Opera (which also did the piece in 2011); his upper register was particularly ringing and strong. And Auguin poured heart and soul into a dense but powerful reading. It was not only an impressive evening, but a moving one.
In an as-yet-to-be-written primer of contemporary stage directing, one might outline two principal ways that directors make operas more relevant, in quotes, to today’s audiences. Either you “update” it to a different historical period, or you slightly distance it with a bright, candy-colored palette in your sets and costumes. The latter technique has dominated at WNO this season, from the acidically vivid “Marriage of Figaro” in September to this “Butterfly,” designed by the Japanese artist Jun Kaneko, responsible for the “Magic Flute” that came here in 2014 — which this “Butterfly” production actually predates.
Kaneko, who spent years on each of his three opera productions, and who was present in a wheelchair on Saturday night, treats opera like a beautiful object, aestheticizing it with bright, saturated colors — including planes of gradated light across the empty backdrop — and stylized costumes: round disks with colored rims doing duty as parasols; bright color blocks giving a kind of Pierrot air to Pinkerton’s uniform; and a web of vivid kimonos, like semaphores, suspended over the whole proscenium at the beginning each act. In effect, this is approaching opera as fairy tale, rather than taking a literal, film-like angle — a reasonable way to think about a piece that has been produced over and over for more than a century, and has indeed achieved a kind of iconic, fairy-tale status.
You could argue that the stylization and distancing of the simple, blocky, cartoon-like costumes, or the video screens with their simple projections, detracted in a couple of places from the emotion of the story; I do think that the two singers and/or the director, Leslie Swackhamer, could have gotten more out of the Act I love duet, which became a little anodyne, in spite of the good singing, in the static space between video screens. The scene focused more on an almost chaste kiss at the end, shown in silhouette behind a Japanese sliding screen, than on the passion that the music limned before that moment. The spareness of the set and action didn’t hamper other moments, though; “Un bel di,” as sung by Jaho with quiet purity, was a knockout, even if the soprano didn’t quite have the vocal heft at times to dominate with fortes over Auguin’s surging orchestra.
And the rest of the cast, many of them making company debuts, helped fill in the emotional palette, starting with the warm and lovely Suzuki of Kristen Choi (more of her, please). Troy Cook was a little quiet of voice but dignified and simpatico as Sharpless; Ian McEuen was a credible Goro; and Timothy Bruno and Michael Adams, both current members of the Domingo-Cafritz program, did well as the Bonze and Yamadori. The production followed what seems to be a current trend in depicting the latter figure, Butterfly’s would-be suitor after Pinkerton’s decampment, not as the rich, ugly old guy of past stereotype, but as a dignified and plausible option for Butterfly, which only emphasizes the tragedy of her refusal to consider even thinking about anyone other than Pinkerton.
The Washington National Opera scheduled 14 performances of this production, including a young-artist performance on May 19th. The second cast will feature the American debut of the soprano Sae-Kyung Rim, who is supposed to be terrific. It’s a good enough show that I will be going back to hear her; and I think that for opera-lovers and newbies alike, this “Butterfly” is a good bet.
Madame Butterfly continues at the Washington National Opera through May 21.