When done merely passably well, Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is a reliable tear-jerking drama supported by some of the composer’s most colorful and luscious music. At the Citi Performing Arts CenterSM Shubert Theatre, the Boston Lyric Opera opened its season on Friday, November 2nd with an all-new production of Butterfly, conducted by Andrew Bisantz and performed considerably better than “passably well.” A fine cast and orchestra, excellent musical and dramatic direction, evocative lighting, and attractive and convincing costumes and set combined for a memorable evening.
The most daring intervention of the stage director Lillian Groag came at the outset. Before Puccini’s music began we saw three figures masked and attired in the manner of Japanese kabuki theater; accompanied only by ceremonial drums, as two witnesses watched a third person commit seppuku, Japanese ritual suicide by plunging a dagger into his abdomen. This made a logical enough prologue to Puccini’s orchestral prelude, a fugue (of all things!) whose subject scurries about nervously, even agitatedly, imparting an underlying sense of foreboding even through the largely light-hearted mood of Act I and much of Act II. It was also Groag’s decision to eschew the more or less standard presentation of this opera as an instance of American cultural imperialism. Here Lieutenant Pinkerton is young and self-centered enough initially not to recognize that Butterfly doesn’t view their bond as the typical geisha’s “marriage of convenience.” He may be a cad at the beginning, but in the end he is far from a callous exploiter.
In the title role, also known as Cio-Cio-San, Yunah Lee employed a well-focused soprano voice of impressive flexibility, range, and stamina (after her delayed initial appearance, she is hardly ever offstage for more than a minute). Lee was also a moving actress as Butterfly evolves from fanciful 15-year-old in Act I to remarkably self-possessed 18-year-old in Act II. Tenor Dinyar Vania, the Pinkerton, had a lustrous sound with a ringing, Italianate top register, satisfying both in solos and in duet with Lee. As the younger officer, “rambunctious and clueless” in Groag’s apt description, a fatuous grin seldom left his face during Act I. That characterization contrasted strikingly with his take of the man later tormented by remorse. In portraying Butterfly’s devoted servant Suzuki, Kelley O’Connor’s rich mezzo was an asset, giving the character a maternal warmth that enhanced the drama of the final scenes. As the American consul Sharpless, Weston Hurt offered a warm baritone as the voice of experience trying, Cassandra-like, to warn both Pinkerton and Butterfly but going unheeded, with results worse than even he might have imagined. The marriage-broker Goro is the focus of most of the opera’s comic relief, and tenor Michael Colvin made him a delightfully greasy little toady, by turns officious and cowardly.
The wedding of Butterfly and Pinkerton in Act I offered a fine example of characterization accomplished by a single gesture. The newlyweds take a ceremonial drink from the same bowl; after she takes a slow, reverent sip, she hands it to him and he chug-a-lugs. A musical highlight was the aria in which Cio-Cio-San tells of going to the Mission to convert to Christianity before her marriage, with Lee, Bisantz and the orchestra creating music of exceptional atmosphere and expressivity. The first act’s moment of greatest drama comes when Butterfly’s uncle, the Bonze, arrives unexpectedly at the wedding to denounce her for forsaking her religion and, by extension, her people. The scene was staged for maximum dramatic impact: David Cushing as the Bonze (a Buddhist priest) was robed and masked in kabuki manner, seemingly suspended in mid-air, lighted in lurid red, and given an electronic echo effect to give his imprecations an ostensibly divine authority. After this turmoil and the departure of all the other characters, Butterfly and Pinkerton have their extended love scene, slightly diffident at first, but little by little swelling into the grand passion that is sine qua non in verismo opera. Lee and Vania, helped by the orchestra’s beautiful tapestry, were dramatically and musically entrancing here, capping Act I magnificently with spectacular twin high Cs.
In Act II we saw more imaginative staging during the opera’s perhaps most famous aria: Cio-Cio-San envisioning Pinkerton’s ship sailing into Nagasaki harbor and his return to her after three years away. As she began it, Suzuki was close behind her on stage, but soon a curtain descended between them—perhaps a visual metaphor for the characters’ differing perspectives. Butterfly in other respects has matured, but her naive faith in Pinkerton remains unshakeable whereas Suzuki, presumably a bit older and more worldly-wise, already foresees heartbreak for her mistress. Lee gave a nuanced performance, as moving in the delicate passages as in the ecstatic climax. The soprano also had an opportunity to show her comic chops, impersonating participants in an imagined dialogue in America: a bored husband seeking divorce and a pompous judge who gives him short shrift. Lee’s deliberately exaggerated playacting was humorous but also reminded us that Cio-Cio-San retains some childlike qualities.
Soon thereafter, of course, events turn darker quickly. Still hoping that Butterfly can get used to the idea of a geisha’s serial marriages, Sharpless is shocked to learn that Butterfly and Pinkerton’s union has produced a child (born after the lieutenant’s departure). In an aria sung with searing intensity by Lee, Cio-Cio-San explains that if Pinkerton were not to return and support his family, she would kill herself before leading the dishonorable life of a beggar. When Pinkerton does arrive (with his new bride) and is informed about his son, his remorse borders on the melodramatic but is not insincere. Vania and Hurt share a brief but affecting duet as Pinkerton bids farewell to the house where he knew much bliss. The denouement is stirring thanks to the major cast members: Butterfly’s new maturity as she gives her son into Pinkerton’s new wife’s care and absolves her of any guilt; Suzuki’s grief on behalf of her mistress; Sharpless’s helplessness when his advice has gone unheeded repeatedly; and Pinkerton’s unremitting pangs of conscience. And the conclusion is properly devastating as Pinkerton rushes in at the moment Cio-Cio-San stabs herself behind her child as he plays on a rocking horse, blissfully unaware. A special word for the talented toddler who played “Sorrow”, Daxton Cochran Jesser: his focus and attention span were impressive, and he (as children do) tended to steal whatever scene he was in. Overall, Boston Lyric Opera has made a very promising start to its new season.