From my first glance at the stage I knew we were in for a different kind of Madama Butterfly today. The stage set was unique: designed with a painterly eye, delicate, refined, and simple in its beauty. We attended the Sunday, October 24 performance of the Houston Grand Opera production.
Then the incredible Maltese tenor, Joseph Calleja, took the stage and gave us the best Pinkerton I have ever heard. His voice was strong, yet nuanced: he was in total control of it. It’s hard not to hate Pinkerton when you have seen this opera so many times, but his voice and portrayal was so good, it made me suspend my disbelief, for an hour anyway.
The entrance of the wedding party, culminating in Cio-Cio-San’s arrival, was a thing of beauty, slowly unfolding. She did an enchanting business with a couple of fans, and her lady friends echoed it in a simpler version. All the women’s faces were devoid of the garish makeup you frequently see in this opera. We begin to see that body language – and not exaggerated costumes and kitsch – is going to be a more important characterization tool in this production.
Ana María Martinez, in her first outing in the role of Butterfly, had us at hello. Her crystal clear and sweet soprano was fashioned and honed to sound like the voice of a young girl. She walked, stood, and gestured with childlike innocence. I have seen her sing many roles, but I instantly forgot them when she became Butterfly, a complete persona down to her posture and a small tilt of the head. Her “Un bel di” was sung with such ardent faith and strength while still looking like a woman from a Japanese painting.
I could go on, but you get the idea: she was superlative in the role.
The baritone Levi Hernandez was an excellent Sharpless, doing his part to make this performance near perfect.
The creative team we have been hearing about really did deliver. Director Michael Grandage, Set and Costume Designer Christopher Oram, and Lighting Designer Neil Austin gave us a “fresh” Madama Butterfly – like seeing an old familiar friend from someone else’s point of view. They swept the Tony Awards in June for their creative work on the stage play, Red.
Their elegant and artful stage design conveyed the mood of quiet beauty that is valued in Japanese culture and art. In Act II the scene changes before our eyes: small adjustments are made that alter the mood from warm to cold. The golden-hued proscenium frame was pulled up out of view to reveal a colder silver-tone frame. The flowering tree departed and left us with some bare branches. Even the scenery is telling the story: love has departed.
Even the child could act! Little Sorrow, Madama Butterfly’s son, was played by Trevor Casey who was the right age (about 3 years old) and seemed very comfortable onstage with his “stage mother,” Ana María Martinez. Because he was so agreeable, he had a lot more stage time than most children who play this role do.
The heartbreaking Act III was superbly acted and sung, and was particularly hard to take, because this Butterfly seemed so real.
Thank you to all involved in this peerless production for a very moving experience.