Glorious vocals shine against spare set in ‘Madama Butterfly’


Ana María Martínez in Madama Butterfly at Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Todd Rosenberg photo)
Ana María Martínez in Madama Butterfly at Lyric Opera of Chicago. (Todd Rosenberg photo)

4 stars

Brian Jagde’s powerful tenor and Ana Maria Martinez’s delicate and expressively lyrical soprano were worth the slosh through the snow for Lyric Opera’s opening of “Madama Butterfly,” Thursday.

No matter how audiences feel about Giacomo Puccini’s anti-hero, US Navy Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton, and his callous disregard of a 15-year-old Geisha’s heart, or the disastrous results, it is the composer’s arias, duets and a subtle chorus that make “Madama Butterfly” an opera-house staple and featured in concerts.

However, what original director Michael Grandage’s bare-bones production (revived by director Louisa Muller with set and costume designed by Christoper Oram), does, is to deliberately allow the leads to shine without the distraction of elaborate set changes and people movement.

And shine they did. Jagde, who will soon be replaying his Lyric 2014-15 Cavaradossi “Tosca” role at the Met, shows why he is in high-demand as he sang “Dovunque al mondo,” (Throughout the world). It’s nod to “The Star-Spangled Banner,” would be Pinkerton’s musical theme.

And there is our introduction to the Puerto-Rican born soprano, Ana Maria Martinez, in the lovely “Ancora un passo” as Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San) takes her friends up the hill for the marriage ceremony. The tune hints at Butterfly’s theme.

Then there is Puccini’s remarkably long duet ending Act 1 that begins with “Bimba, Bimba, non piangere (“Sweetheart, sweetheart, do not weep), continues with “Viene la sera” (Night is falling) and “Bimba dagli occhi (Sweetheart, with eyes…),  then ends with “Vogliatemi bene” (Love me, please).

The opera’s most famous aria, ”Un bel di vedremo “(One fine day we shall see) comes in Act II when Martinez describes how she will know P:inkerton’s ship has returned and how coy she will be about greeting him.

Although she does it justice, the Lyric Opera Orchestra conducted by Henrik Nánási, gets a little carried away during some of the high points, making it hard to hear all of Martinez’s thrilling notes.

An aside must be inserted here about the music that accompanies the entrance of Prince Yamadori’ (Puerto Rican baritone Ricardo José Rivera) who is led on stage by the troublesome matchmaker, Goro (Filippino—American tenor Rodell Rosel). Goro wants butterfly to marry the Prince.

If it sounds familiar, that is because Puccini uses strains from “Mivasant,” a Japanese folk tune that also appears in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “the Mikado.”

Anthony Clark Evans and Brian Jagde in Madama Butterfly at Lyric Opera (Todd Rosenberg photo)
Anthony Clark Evans and Brian Jagde in Madama Butterfly at Lyric Opera (Todd Rosenberg photo)

After “Il cannone del porto! (The cannon at the harbor) is heard and Butterfly and her maid, Suzuki (American mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel), plus Butterfly’s son Sorrow, strew flowers on the hill path, the trio sit and watch for Pinkerton to come up the hill. Butterfly watches through the night to the lengthy “Coro a bocca chiusa” (Humming Chorus) as the other two sleep.

Sharpless, the US consul to Nagasaki where the action takes place, tries to tell Butterfly that Pinkerton is not coming back to her. Well sung by American baritone Anthony Clark Evans, Sharpless appears throughout the opera with warnings as Puccini’s way of saying that not all Americans are heartless.

Act III ends with Butterfly singing the sad “Tu? Tu? Piccolo iddio!” (You? You? My little god!) to her son, Sorrow. She will be handing him over to Pinkerton and his American wife, Kate (American soprano Kayleigh Decker). Choosing an honorable death to alternatives she views as dishonorable, Butterfly kills herself with a blade that had belonged to her dead father.

Pinkerton finally comes up the hill, calling out to Butterfly but he is too late. She has already killed herself.

The backstory: “Madama Butterfly” is based on a one-act play by David Belasco that Puccini saw in 1900. However, Belasco’s play is taken from a short story by John Luther Long supposedly sourced from Long’s sister Jennie Correll. The opera had an unsuccessful premier at La scala in 1904 but was followed a few months latger by a highly acclaimed production in Brescia after Puccini made some revisions. The libretto is by Lugi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.

Martínez will be reprising her Butterfly role at the Met this spring. Soprano Lianna Haroutounian will make her lyric debut as Butterfly for the March 4-7 performances at the same time Lyric regular, tenor Bandon Jovanovich steps in for Jagde.

DETAILS: “Madama Butterfly” is at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Dr., Chicago through March 7. For tickets and other information call (312) 827-5600 or visit Lyric Opera.

Jodie Jacobs

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