Both Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” and Verdi’s “Aida” are about young people — 15-year-old heroines — with big, grown-up voices. The Wolf Trap Opera is also about young people with grown-up voices — just starting out on their professional paths. It produced a concert version of “Aida” earlier this summer with alumni of the program, who showed they’d grown into that opera with aplomb; and on Friday night at the Filene Center, it presented this year’s crop of young singers in “Butterfly,” which, for the most part, they discharged very credibly.
Most of the company’s offerings are presented at the Barns at Wolf Trap, which means that you can tackle big repertory in a smaller setting. The Filene Center offers a different set of big-league challenges: an audience of thousands, outdoor seating and amplification. It’s a lot to ask of young singers who haven’t tackled this kind of repertoire before, and for a few minutes, I thought it was too much to demand of Alexandra Loutsion, who sang Butterfly (a.k.a. Cio-Cio San) and made a somewhat shaky impression in one of the more exposed entrances in opera. It turned out, though, to be a case of first-night jitters. Loutsion isn’t a fully ripened Butterfly, but she has a lot to offer, starting with a rounded, rich voice and continuing with a sense of the character that blossomed in Act 2 despite unflattering costuming by Rooth Varland and slightly too much spinning in circles, whether prompted or tempered by the stage director, Tara Faircloth. There was some stasis in big moments but a lot of ardor overall. Loutsion is a singer to watch, though I think Verdi and Strauss might end up being better fits for her voice.
A couple of Friday’s singers had experience in the Barns last summer in smaller works. Robert Watson, after last year’s “Le pauvre matelot” (“The Poor Sailor”), got to try out one of the most oft-performed roles of the standard repertory, Pinkerton, and sang with a ringing and sustained sound that almost belied his character’s weakness. Joo Won Kang, featured on the same bill in “Les mamelles de Tiresias” (“Tiresias’s Breasts”), was a wonderfully expressive Sharpless. And J’nai Bridges, a mezzo who won the Marian Anderson Award in 2012, made a distinctive Suzuki with a sizable and lovely voice.
Grant Gershon, the conductor, brought relaxed, contagious energy to the stage from the moment he walked onto it and led the National Symphony Orchestra and the chorus now known as Choral Arts with quiet flair. Faircloth’s production, by contrast, was too cluttered for its own good, particularly with the four costumed male dancers (credited as “spirits” in the program) who kept wandering across the stage, sometimes bringing on bits of scenery, sometimes performing anodyne choreographic gestures.
The distinctive visual element were the projections that have become a hallmark of opera at the Filene Center since it returned in 2013: Designed by S. Katy Tucker, they were screened on large circles of different sizes floating above the stage and featured cherry blossoms, cloudscapes, stylized Japanese seascapes, the singers’ faces and the like. Perfectly inoffensive, they neither added to nor detracted from the action.
More notable was the cruelty of the conclusion, when Pinkerton runs on to see the dying Butterfly, only to turn from her to meet his child (played in different scenes by Jack Beresik and David Kang), so that the last thing she sees is the two men in her life cementing their bond and ignoring her last breaths. It certainly drove the point home.