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‘Madama Butterfly’ remains one of opera’s grandest tearjerkers

Lyric Opera’s production, as revived by director Louisa Muller, was low energy at first. But it positively took off in Act 2.

Brian Jagde and Ana María Martínez star in the Lyric Opera production of “Madama Butterfly.”
Brian Jagde and Ana María Martínez star in the Lyric Opera production of “Madama Butterfly.”
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

The curtain opens on “Madama Butterfly” to a stunning image that must have seemed familiar even to newcomers in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s audience at Thursday’s opening night, so reminiscent is it of iconic Japanese woodblock prints like the “Great Wave” by Hokusai.

The centerpiece of Michael Grandage’s set, which has been seen at Lyric before, is similarly austere, a great and graceful curve of pathway leading to a spare downstage row of shoji screens suggesting a humble abode.

Too bad the set doesn’t work. Not in the first act as a practical matter for Puccini’s opera and its singers, anyway. The performers were largely distanced in their battle to connect with the audience throughout the opening numbers in which the story’s essential gravitas is laid out. Fortunately, Ana Maria Martinez, the great soprano and profound actress who plays the tragic “butterfly” of this story, overwhelmingly redeemed the experience in the opera’s mesmerizing second half.

The exotic plot of “Madama Butterfly” centers upon a beautiful 15-year-old geisha named Cio-Cio-San (Martinez), who resolutely believes her Nagasaki marriage with a transfixed American naval officer temporarily stationed there, is going to be a forever thing. Act 2 takes place after several years of abandonment suggesting otherwise. Cio-Cio-San has given birth to their little boy, whom she has simply named “Sorrow.”

The opera’s fraught and tender tale is based on a wildly popular American magazine story by John Luther Long from 1898. The rights were purchased by David Belasco, a bigtime American producer and playwright, who turned it into a 1900 Broadway hit. His play went almost immediately to London, where none other than the Italian composer Giacomo Puccini — of “Tosca” and “La boheme” fame — saw it and was gobsmacked, especially by the musical potential of a long scene without words in which the anxious girl awaits what she thinks is going to be her husband’s return. By 1904 Puccini had adapted this “Butterfly” saga into an opera. By 1907 “Madama Butterfly” was at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, at which time the original play’s actress Blanche Bates, still active on Broadway, and the opera’s star, soprano Geraldine Ferrar, famously met. That’s pretty fast, even by today’s standards.

Soprano Ana Maria Martinez stars as Cio-Cio-San in Lyric Opera’s production of “Madama Butterfly.”
Soprano Ana Maria Martinez stars as Cio-Cio-San in Lyric Opera’s production of “Madama Butterfly.”
© Todd Rosenberg Photography

Lyric Opera’s production, as revived by director Louisa Muller, was low energy at first. But it positively took off in Act 2, when Cio-Cio-San’s faithful maid Suzuki (mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel) reports that they’re almost out of money, to which Butterfly, summoning all her courage, sings of the one beautiful day (“Un bel dì”) they will see a puff of smoke on the horizon, marking the return at long last of Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton.

In “Un bel di vedremo,” Martinez fills out every little detail of Butterfly’s suspense-filled account with the vocal embroidery of a desperate soul who has re-visited this moment over and over in her head. It is the showpiece aria of the opera, indeed one of Puccini’s most famous ever for soprano, and in Martinez’s care it rose to its glorious imaginary heights right alongside the counter-balancing, relentlessly tragic undertone.

By contrast Act 1 felt like an effort. One can understand why the conductor Henrik Nánási, who last conducted at Lyric five years ago, might have sensed a need to push the sound too much, and why the singers seemed distant even when singing at full throttle: The Grandage production, designed by Christopher Oram, kept the singers mostly upstage and far from the audience, with little reflective material behind them to help thrust the sound forward.

Nor did the lighting, which seemed designed to create an impressionistic haze, make it easy to connect with facial expressions in any great detail. The initial scene — between an obviously eager Pinkerton on the day of his marriage arrangement, and the experienced American consul Sharpless, performing an aspect of his job he doesn’t like much — became a drowned-out disjunct despite the efforts of tenor Brian Jagde’s seasoned Pinkerton and baritone Anthony Clark Evans’ Sharpless.

Evans is but one Ryan Opera Center alum in the “Butterfly” cast, which also boasts the tenor Rodell Rosel as the oily Goro, procurer of women for men of means. Current Ryan Center artists include five who sing supporting roles.

The part of Pinkerton is perhaps the most difficult in the opera to pull off with any sympathy. He is, as Pinkerton himself admits, pretty much a cad who’s just taking advantage of the flowers that are ready to be plucked on every shore. The toughest corner to turn dramatically is in the final scene of Act 1, on his wedding night with Butterfly, when the music takes on its overwhelming sincerity of desire, and when we would all like to believe, in fact need to believe, that he can give her what she thinks he is giving her. Without some sense of his intent to live up to his promise, the final act, which ends in her death and his cry of remorse, seems false.

To Jagde’s credit, and to Martinez’s, their wedding night love scene was truly beautiful, vocally and dramatically. But Pinkerton’s cries of remorse at the opera’s end, uttered as the sailor crumbles over Butterfly’s dead body, seemed more like agony-for-show, put on for witnesses who might be watching from a distance, than anything from his heart. What Jagde did was indeed dramatically defensible. Perhaps it is the accepted way to play that final scene these days. But I prefer to think of Pinkerton as redeemable, with more true humility and a little less cad.

Nancy Malitz is a local freelance writer.