"Butterfly" Takes Wing

Seattle Opera: Madama Butterfly

Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” claims the title of most popular opera of all time. While it does not top my list, I thoroughly enjoyed my evening, despite the weaknesses of the performance. Where the production succeeds, and it largely does, it is extremely effective.

What Seattle Opera’s version does best is to create an atmosphere that is perfect for the somewhat feeble plot. Despite the enormity of the stage and relative sparseness of the set, the production team has managed to bring a feeling of intimacy to McCaw Hall. Perhaps it is a direct result of the simplicity of the production – the set consists of several Japanese screens in front of a vaguely impressionistic landscape depicting Japanese mountains. The costumes, beautiful though not entirely accurate, follow a similar line – only 3 colors are used: white, grey, and orange. The whole production seems to have a ritualistic quality.

In the moments when disorder overtakes ritual, the effect is all the more striking. One of the most emotionally moving moments for me came during the flower duet, when the order of Butterfly’s house is disturbed by the piles of cherry blossoms – the recklessness of the love she is feeling is perfectly captured, and when in the morning Pinkerton still has not come, the disheveled house takes on a claustrophobic, messy feel that put me on edge. My compliments to Peter Kazaras, director.

Unfortunately, the singing did not always match the excellence of the production. None of the principal singers captivated me entirely, although some were better than others. Luckily, all were fairly good actors, which helped to make up for the somewhat weak performances. Sharpless (Brett Polegato) was enjoyable to watch (and quite handsome) but he lacked the power I was hoping for, and Goro (Doug Jones) didn’t impress me at all. As Pinkerton, Nathaniel Peake delivered a gorgeous (if somewhat quiet) performance, hindered only by the ghastly uniform he was wearing. As Suzuki, Sarah Larsen proved to be a good actress, but her voice has a nasal quality that began to grate on me as the night went on.

Finally, as Madama Butterfly herself, Ausrine Stundyte gave a largely excellent performance, which improved considerably after the intermission – my attention had wandered during “Viene la sera,” the love duet that concludes Act I.

Things that bothered me:

  •  The lack of drama during Butterfly’s suicide – I felt more moved after the curtain went down than before it.
  • The decision not to use the silhouettes that the screens provide. I felt that the one instance of its use, in the scene where Suzuki prays, was highly effective and I would have liked to see it used more.
  • Prince Yamadori (David Krohn) was frankly a disappointment. His costume was boring, his acting seemed flat, and his voice didn’t touch me at all.

One last item of note: The music was played absolutely beautifully, perhaps better than in any other opera I remember hearing; I overheard multiple people comment on how good it sounded – it transcended the notes on the page and entered the realm of the out-of-body experience.

Overall, while I can’t say that it is my favorite opera, it was certainly better than some I have seen. The harmony of the production was highly effective, and in spite of my reservations, I was truly transported.

Click here for library materials on Madama Butterfly.

Evan, Teen Advisor
Northeast Branch

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