Review: Butterfly soars in HGO’s artful new mounting

Patrick Summers
Houston Chronicle

By Everett Evans

Breathtakingly beautiful to see and to hear, Houston Grand Opera's new production of Puccini's Madame Butterfly launches the company's 56th season on a note of subtle yet complete triumph.

With artfully focused direction by the renowned Michael Grandage in his notable HGO debut and soprano Ana Maria Martinez making a memorable role debut with her gloriously sung and powerfully acted Cio-Cio-San, this is a textbook example of how to refresh a beloved "warhorse" while remaining true to all its core values.

As Friday's opening attested, this Butterfly is one of those thrilling instances in which the allied arts of opera — vocal and orchestral music, dramatic narrative, staging and décor - each excel in their individual virtues yet also dovetail with seamless perfection in a unified expression of the work's meaning. We often hear of "synergy" as an ideal in collaborative art; here, we experience it.

For a company whose past Butterfly stagings have included distinctive productions helmed by such superstar directors as Harold Prince and Ken Russell, the bar is high, indeed.

Yet Grandage delivers with a clean-lined, dramatically incisive production totally committed to its tale of innocent geisha Butterfly (Cio-Cio-San) and her steadfast love for American naval lieutenant Pinkerton, who deserts her soon after the marriage that she considers permanent and he views as a temporary convenience.

Grandage's hallmarks are grace, simplicity and immediacy, whether in blocking the action or guiding the emotional interplay. This Butterfly has nothing superfluous, not a wasted gesture or moment.

Working with his frequent collaborators, set and costume designer Christopher Oram and lighting designer Neil Austin, Grandage creates gorgeous yet uncluttered stage pictures.

Oram's splendid setting features a semicircular ramp, which Grandage employs to striking effect for significant entrances; Oram's costumes meld exotic splendor with tasteful restraint, all enhanced by Austin's magical lighting.

The pictorial beauty hits its peak with a coup de theatre during Butterfly's all-night vigil, awaiting Pinkerton's return during the famous "Humming" Chorus.

Butterfly, her son Sorrow and servant Suzuki climb the hill (the ramp) and sit at its peak, backs to the audience; then, the ramp revolves, reversing the perspective, bringing them downstage, gazing out at the horizon (the audience.) It's a lovely, transporting moment.

Martinez spans the title role's vast range with aplomb. The warmth and occasional smoky coloring of her voice, the graceful legato of her phrasing, the delicate precision of her pianissimo and her confident power at full strength - all seem ideally suited to charting Butterfly's emotional progression. She is thoroughly convincing in her Act 1 shyness and vulnerability, yet even then, her passionate commitment is formidable.

In Act 2, she shows how years of waiting and suffering have profoundly changed Butterfly. Yet, in her glorious Un bel di, describing her dream of Pinkerton's return, she fully conveys the indomitability of her faith in love. And when she at last realizes he is lost to her, Martinez's desolation in her farewell aria is heartbreaking, as it must be.

Tenor Joseph Calleja makes his eagerly awaited HGO debut as Pinkerton and confirms himself a major star - even in the tricky role of a leading man who's both a cad and in absentia much of the running time.

Calleja sings with such range, such ease and such a rolling, robust sound that every phrase is pure pleasure to hear. He projects extrovert exuberance and casual charm, as in his establishing aria about his life as an adventuring American vagabond, that somewhat excuses his later behavior, or at least helps explain Butterfly's devotion. With his ardor matching Martinez's soulfulness, their love duet zooms to that Puccini stratosphere of nothing-else-matters romanticism.

Levi Hernandez's dark timbre and wary air make him a perfect Sharpless, the consul who must offer unheeded warnings to reckless Pinkerton, then later, bring woeful tidings to poor Butterfly. As Suzuki, Lucy Schaufer sings with quiet intensity and pained concern. Rodell Rosel exudes the right wily opportunism as marriage broker Goro.

Patrick Summers conducts with his customary dash and expertise, drawing rich and sonorous sound from the 66-person HGO orchestra. Summers understands that beyond its exquisite beauty, this score operates first and foremost as drama. He makes every detail count, from the most delicate phrases to the most thundering pronouncements of doom.

Even a moment of absolute silence, when Butterfly ponders Sharpless' query as to what she would do if Pinkerton never returned, seems held an extra beat to assert its full impact - as if the world has stopped, because hers has. That's artistry.

Whether this is your first or 40th Butterfly, it's an experience you won't soon forget.