Debate about the viability of contemporary productions of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” rages on. The opera sits firmly in the top-ten list of operatic repertoire, given the number of yearly performances the world over. Ye many argue that its time is past, given its depiction of Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly) as helpless victim, feeding both cultural and gender stereotypes, and the continued casting of non-Asian singers in the title role. The lyric stage writ large is working to answer for the centuries-long practice of allowing minority stories to be told by performers who are, perhaps, unable to plumb the depths of these characters. The new wisdom is that stories “belong” to the people whose story is told and should be depicted from their singularly informed perspective.
This is the story of a geisha who marries an American naval officer. He abandons her and returns to America to take an American wife. She hands over her child to be raised by them and, dishonored, takes her own life. On paper, the opera looks like much of what the #MeToo movement seeks to see, name and transform.
The other side of this argument is multifaceted, but for our purposes, we should ask a question: is this opera to be lost if the “right” singer cannot be found who can handle the vocal complexities of Puccini’s challenging score? And if it is to be salvaged, how can the artists who seek to tell the story, despite the complexity of casting, answer these challenges while keeping the score alive?
Lyric’s production offers the perspective of many non-white singers in principal roles, telling the story from their understanding of being “other” and eschews the notion of yellow-face makeup that was favored for so long as a way to indicate ethnicity. Additionally, this particular production offers the perspective of the leading character that plays to her every strength. No wilting flower, here she is a strong woman who makes decisions for herself, given her circumstances. Sometimes the playing rises above what might seem to be on the page and changes everything.
A celebrated Butterfly, Ana María Martínez indicates traditional Japanese movement with quiet grace. Her geisha seldom dissolves into self-pity for more than an instant, quickly recovering her inner strength. Both in movement and in voice, Martinez’s portrayal is no cherry blossom. Martinez is surely a “soprano” in the most voluptuous terms, singing what she feels fits her voice and temperament regardless of any fach-box into which critics and the public might like to place her instrument. She more than meets the challenges of the role, seemingly written for two entirely different voices, both a lyric voice, but also a voice that can stand up to orchestral brass and percussion in heightened moments. Her pianissimo here is flawless. She points her voice in such a way as to carry the orchestra by technique rather than force, where another might be inclined to either shout or refuse the test altogether and succumb.
As oppressor and all-around cad Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton, Brian Jagde sings with the heroism that his spineless, unevolved character does not possess. Jagde’s voice, with its coppery ring, seemingly effortless high notes and extraordinary lyric spin given its heft, cannot help but please, even in phrases where his character is most heartless. His palpable pain as he discovers what his callousness has wrought is a top-drawer effort by an artist who seeks to humanize his character. The understanding and open-heartedness he displayed when the audience booed him at his solo curtain call proves him an artist of integrity, as well as mind-numbing ability.
Deborah Nansteel (Suzuki), Anthony Clark Evans (Sharpless) and Rodell Rosel (Goro) add immeasurably to the success of this storytelling, each singing with the urgency of an artist with something to say, who wants to have a conversation across the footlights. In the famous offstage “Humming Chorus,” Lyric’s chorus is, as usual, unsurpassed for both beauty of sound and impeccable musicianship.
We must work out our own salvations with fear and trembling; it is our gift and our responsibility. While we do the necessary work to find and hone our ethics and then to shout them across the world to uphold and protect the downtrodden, it might be useful to immerse ourselves in as much perspective as possible. This production of “Madama Butterfly” is obviously fashioned to invite discussion rather than uninformed permissiveness. (Aaron Hunt)
Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 North Wacker, (312)332-2244, lyricopera.org, $39-$299. Through March 8.