Review: Lyric Opera Revisits a Timeless, Thrilling Classic in Madama Butterfly

The Lyric Opera of Chicago first presented Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in 1955 (it made its world premiere in 1904); the version on stage there now (through March 8) is a revival of a production the grand opera house first staged in 2013. I wasn’t alive for that mid-century premiere, and I wasn’t yet an opera fan for its 2013 return. So it’s my great luck now (as it would be anyone’s who is wise enough to snap up a ticket) to get to experience this exceptional revival of a timeless, albeit tragic, classic (here directed by Louisa Muller, based on Michael Grandage’s original). From deceptively simple staging to gorgeously emotive performances to breathtaking orchestration, this production reminds us what a jewel we have in a theater as dedicated to presenting world-class opera as the Lyric.

Image courtesy of Lyric Opera of Chicago

Puccini (with librettists Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica) based Madama Butterfly on a short story by John Luther Long and a one-act play by David Belasco, though its story of a young woman waiting for the man she loves to return is perhaps better known as its modern adaptation: Miss Saigon. The operatic iteration is set in the Japan of the early 20th century; B.F. Pinkerton (Brian Jagde), a U.S. Navy lieutenant stationed in Nagasaki, leases a small village home (just one extended shoji screen stands in for the space) from Goro (Rodell Rosel), the local deal (and match) maker. As he settles in, Pinkerton regales Sharpless, the American consul (Anthony Clark Evans) with news of Cio-Cio-San (Ana Maria Martinez), a local geisha he’s fallen for and plans to “marry,” despite Sharpless’s  insistence that Madama Butterfly, as she’s known, will take the ceremony much more seriously than he does.

Sure enough, when Pinkerton ships off again, Butterfly is left alone, yearning for the man for whom she’s renounced her family, her faith and her livelihood. Even in the face of pressure to marry another wealthy suitor, she refuses, holding fast (with the help of her loyal lady’s maid Suzuki (Deborah Nansteel)) for three long years until Sharpless brings word that Pinkerton’s ship is returning to port. The grace period for spoilers has probably long-since passed and probably just as well known; nevertheless, I won’t spell out here exactly how Butterfly’s fate unfolds. Suffice it to say that Pinkerton’s return isn’t as romantic a reunion as she’d hoped, and she feels forced to make a stunning sacrifice for the good of the ones she loves most. The journey of Madama Butterfly is at turns incredibly sexy (the moment Jagde and Martinez share at the end of Act I inspires flutters of its own) and devastatingly heartbreaking (little Graham Macfarlane’s performance, even in its silence, tugs at the heartstrings), which is likely what makes it as timeless a production as any.

The show’s most impressive moment is in fact its quietest, as Butterfly, Suzuki and the little boy wait all night for Pinkerton’s ship, the USS Abraham Lincoln, to arrive in port. The set (designed by Christopher Gram, who also is responsible for the costumes) here reveals its biggest secret, rotating a full 180-degrees to bring the actors back down to center stage; as Act II draws to a close with Butterfly holding her sad vigil, Hungarian conductor Henrik Nánási (who hasn’t appeared at the Lyric since 2015) and his orchestra get their moment to shine. With just choral vocals, Coro a bocca chiusa is a magnificently emotive piece, one that Nánási draws out with equal parts enthusiasm and nuance. In the moment, it is a beautifully moving tableau; recalling it now, it stands up as a rare, truly exceptional intersection of art, emotion and beauty, the kind of elusive perfection that is the reason we go to the theater.

Martinez is a stunning Butterfly—a role with which she is deeply familiar—having first performed it in 2016 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (where she’ll return to reprise the role in April). Chicagoans would be smart to seize the opportunity to see her while she’s here; in her capable hands, Butterfly is at turns playful and flirtatious, resolute and loyal, desperate and full of agony. Both Jagde and Evans rise to meet the high bar Martinez sets, their respective tenor and baritone gorgeous complements to  her soprano. They both cut sharp figures in their period-appropriate tailored suits, and as the narrative stakes get ever higher, their performances evolve into dramatic depths worthy of the circumstances. With charming contributions from Rosel, Nansteel and others, this relatively small ensemble (at least as far as opera is concerned) draws on a shared strength that elevates the entire production.

Madama Butterly is one of the most frequently performed operas in the world; more than a century after its premiere, its music and story remain a dazzling example of opera at its best. These days, warranted criticisms exist around the show’s appropriation of Japanese culture and who can/should play the various roles; modern theater producers (and goers) are much more aware of the ramifications of such cultural insensitivities. But the Lyric walks this contemporary tightrope well; as an essay in the production program makes the case, there are ways to produce a show like Madama Butterfly without exploiting the culture in which it’s set. Thankfully, this exquisite production not only takes care with these important considerations, but delivers one of the most thrilling theater-going experiences in recent memory while it does.

Lyric Opera of Chicago presents Madame Butterfly in select performances through March 8; a full performance schedule and tickets ($49-$209) are here.

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Lisa Trifone