WNO’s Butterfly: Not To Be Missed, Even If You’ve Seen It Before

The funny thing is that, although I had a ticket as a season subscriber, I was not anticipating Washington National Opera’s production of Madame Butterfly with much enthusiasm.  It is a great opera, beautiful music with a heart rendering story; however, I have seen Madame Butterfly before and listened to its recordings multiple times.  It was Renato Scotto’s singing of the role of Cio-Cio San that caused me to put her in first place on my favorite opera voices list.  So, I was looking forward to Saturday night’s performance, but not excited.  By the end of the first act, I was excited... and anxious to see what more was to come.  I had not read about this particular production ahead of time, perhaps due to my lack of enthusiasm, and did not anticipate what was in store for me.  It was a surprise.  I have never attended a tragedy before where I left the theater feeling so good.  And I was not alone.  When it ended, Ermonela Jaho, who played Cio-Cio San, appeared from the curtain to take a quick bow; she was met by a standing ovation and shouts of brava which only stopped when the last bow was taken by all cast members and the curtain came down.  All my fellow patrons I saw leaving had smiles on their faces.  My strongest recommendation is to stop reading now and just go see it.

Left photo: Snapshot of the Kennedy Center Opera House screen as seats were filling up. Photo by author. Right photo: Villagers in an early scene. Photo by Cory Weaver; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

What caused my reaction?  Visual art, acting art, music art, and vocal art.  This Butterfly has them all in aces.  Let’s start with the visual art; just look at the photos. It was almost an operatic equivalent of Disney’s “Fantasia”.  At the very beginning, the stage is filled with lines, shapes, color, and lighting effects in the costumes and the staging.  I thought I must have wandered into a Japanese art gallery, and it only got better; these elements began to move.  Brightly colored streamers were added from ceiling to floor and they changed with the mood of the scene.  Screens are magically added that project more color and lines and shapes that move.  And it is all strikingly beautiful.  The staging was completely open (sparse) for much of the opera and some scenes might have benefited from better framing, but maybe that would have conflicted with the artful design.  The design of this production was by Japanese artist Jun Kaneko.  This production of Madame Butterfly originated in 2006 with performances by Opera Omaha; it has played several other companies since, including the San Francisco Opera.  The staging alone will make your attendance worthwhile, even if you have seen Butterfly before.

Ermonela Jaho as Cio-Cio San (Butterfly), Troy Cook as Sharpless (the American counsul), and Brian Jagde as B. F. Pinkerton. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

Ermonela Jaho as Cio-Cio San (Butterfly), Troy Cook as Sharpless (the American counsul), and Brian Jagde as B. F. Pinkerton. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

For newbies, Madame Butterfly is a great choice for your first opera.  The composer is Giacomo Puccini and the librettists are Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.  If you don’t know the story, an American navy officer, B.F. Pinkerton stationed in Japan marries a teen-aged Geisha, Cio-Cio San, because he finds her enchanting, knowing that under Japanese law he can divorce her simply by leaving her.  She, totally in love, converts to his religion and is abandoned by her family.  You will sympathize with her and hate him right away.  He is reassigned to the States and leaves with false promises that he will return to her, not aware she will soon bear his son. He does return, but only to claim his son to raise with his new American wife.  As you can see, this is not headed for a happy ending. The musical, Miss Saigon, is based on the story of Madame Butterfly.

Left photo: Brian Jagde as B.F. Pinkerton assures Ermonela Jaho as Cio-Cio San of their bright future together. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washington National Opera. Right photo: Silhouette of Brian Jagde as B.J. Pinkerton and Ermonela Jaho as Cio-Cio San on their wedding night. Photo by Cory Weaver; courtesy of Washington National Opera.

And then there is the singing and music.  For beautiful music, Puccini is hard to top and Butterfly may be his most beautiful.  The orchestra under conductor, Phillipe Auguin, was outstanding, enhancing the flow of the drama and adding its own artful colorations.  Lead soprano Jaho is making her first appearance in DC; she has played this role in many venues in Europe.  She manages to embody the teen-aged Cio-Cio San with swift, light movements and dramatic gestures.  She has a beautiful voice and sings with touching emotion.  I hope to see her again.  Tenor Brian Jagde, who plays Pinkerton (boo, hiss), is a young artist who has fully emerged in this excellent performance. He has a powerful voice, so much so that in a couple of spots he overshadowed some of the other singers.  And the supporting cast was excellent all around.  In particular, I was immediately impressed with mezzo soprano Kristen Choi who has a rich, lovely voice and played Susuki with such depth of feeling.  Troy Cook as Sharpless and Ian McEuen as Goro gave fine performances.  It was fun to have some of the Kennedy Center Domingo-Cafritz young artists participating; Michael Adams as Yamadori, Timothy Bruno as Bonze, and Allegra De Vita as Kate Pinkerton acquitted themselves well.

Left photo: Kristen Choi as Suzuki with an expression of concern while Ermonela Jaho as Cio-Cio San (Butterfly) sings of her dreams. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washingto National Opera. Right photo: Ermonela Jaho (Butterfly) as Cio-Cio San faces the truth. Photo by Scott Suchman; courtesy of Washingto National Opera.

The drama of Madame Butterfly was strongly affected by this style of presentation.  If you want a gut-wrenching performance of Butterfly, this is not that.  The artful style, while engaging and even arresting on its own, distances the viewer somewhat from the emotion of the story.  I was watching more than feeling the story, even with the urging of the music and vocals.  I felt involvement and the sadness, but not at a level other performance styles might evoke.  It may be more involving for newbies.  It was nonetheless a satisfying and exhilarating arts experience, simply a different way of engaging with the story.

My bottom line is the admonition I began with – just go see it!

Coffee mug from the Kennedy Center gift shop. Photo by author.

Coffee mug from the Kennedy Center gift shop. Photo by author.

The Fan Experience: Tickets are still available; current prices are from $25 to $300, but with Kennedy Center dynamic pricing, if this becomes a really hot ticket, the prices could go up.  In deciding on a performance, take note that THERE ARE SIGNICANT CAST CHANGES AMONG THE PERFORMANCES.  Four different sopranos will play Cio-Cio San over the course of the 14 scheduled performances; one performance, May 19, will feature only Kennedy Center Domingo-Cafritz young artists.  WNO scheduled extra performances for this very popular opera. This created an issue for finding singers with that much space on their schedule, then some replacements had to be made and a young artist performance scheduled; so, you can pick your favorite or go see them all.  Post critic, Anne Midgette, who encapsulated Saturday night’s performance well in her professional review , noted that Sae-Kyung Rim, who will play Cio-Cio San in five of the performances, is supposed to be terrific; there are some fans who believe the role should only be played by an Asian singer.  I don't think it is necessary.  I loved Ms. Jaho's rendition; singing and acting are the critical criteria.  However, I can also see that casting an Asian singer could add greater authenticity to the portrayal.  Check the performers and dates and ticket availability at this link.  If you need help with your ticket selection or purchase, call 202-467-4600.  I left the performance feeling so good that I spent $50 in the Kennedy center gift shop – check out the Madame Butterfly coffee mugs .