Houston Grand Opera's 'Butterfly' is a vocal, dramatic feast

Giancarlo Guerrero
Houston Chronicle

The opera world has more than its share of people who cling to the past, and their main complaint is: Great voices and great singing no longer exist. They need to hear Ana Maria Martinez in Giacomo Puccini's "Madama Butterfly."

As Martinez's vibrant, full-bodied voice welled up again and again, it was more than a feast for the ear. It exuded the emotion and dignity that make Butterfly so captivating.

The rest of the production largely equalled Martinez's musical and dramatic force. Tenor Alexey Dolgov sang with a ring, freshness and fire that captured Pinkerton's ardor in Act 1 and his remorse in Act 3, when the sailor returned to Butterfly's home but shrank from facing her. Dolgov also treated Puccini's music to dashes of delicacy that many tenors can't muster.

Baritone Scott Hendricks' Sharpless had a sonorous voice and humane demeanor, and he opened the last scene's trio eloquently. As Butterfly's servant Suzuki, mezzo-soprano Sofia Selowsky complemented Martinez through her voice's warmth and weight.

The Houston Grand Opera Orchestra, led by Giancarlo Guerrero, lashed out ferociously as Butterfly's plight bore down on her. But the transparency, sweetness and poetry that Guerrero and the group brought Puccini's lyricism were even more arresting.

Christopher Oram's set evoked the economy of Japanese art. A single sliding panel represented Butterfly's home; a sweeping, curved ramp flanked by steps suggested the hilltop setting.

The uncluttered stage kept the focus on the cast, and director Louisa Muller made the prominence count. Recreating Michael Grandage's 2010 staging, she laid out graceful tableaux and helped the principals interact compellingly.

Doing without a traditional "Madama Butterfly" set's three-dimensional house paid off in the last minutes of Act 2, when Butterfly, her child and Suzuki watched for Pinkerton's return. Rather peer through a wall, the three perched at the brow of the hill, silhouetted against the sky. The child and Suzuki slumped down asleep, but Butterfly remained upright, unprotected against the universe. The simple image captured her loneliness and her strength.
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