MADAME BUTTERFLY (Opera Philly): A dilettante at large review

Opera Philadelphia’s new staging of MADAME BUTTERFLY. Photo by Sofia Negron.

Clever, brave Opera Philadelphia. In our era of identity politics, where the merest whiff of cultural appropriation can sink a production, the company has smartly sidestepped the obvious danger in their newest show, Puccini’s Madame Butterfly; with so many opportunities to put a political foot wrong, the opera is a minefield. Anticipating some of the dangers, the interval between Acts Two and Three is a slideshow of projections of quotations from Japanese feminists and activists across the years; it is also sobering politically and shocking culturally to see an array of  many many famous sopranos who have all played Butterfly and who are all Caucasian.

But wait: this is opera, after all, not a sociology course. The show begins beautifully in silence. On a dark, bare stage, a small doll sits forlornly in a glass cage.

The  intense drama of the piece is directed by Ethan Head. In the tragic story, a fifteen-year-old geisha, CioCio San, is purchased by an American Navy officer, Lt. Pinkerton (Anthony Ciaramitaro)  who then marries her, toys with her, and discards her.  His friend, Sharpless (Anthony Clark Evans) warns him that she believes in his love and will suffer. She spends years waiting with her maid Suzuki (Kristen Choi), convinced he will return from the U.S. When he does, it is with his white wife to take his son back to the U.S. CioCio kills herself.

Puccini’s music (conducted by Corrado Roveris) is glorious. The singing, especially by the four leads, is open-throated and passionate. While CioCio San is sung by the superb soprano Karen Chia-ling Ho, we are not  watching her but a delicate puppet (designed by Hua Hua Zhang) manipulated by Bunraku-handlers in black. The illusion that the doll is singing is completely established in the gorgeous the love-duet concluding Act One.

The production was designed with great imagination (and minefield avoidance) by Yuki Izumihara.

[Opera Philadelphia at the Academy of Music, 240 S. Broad Street] April 26-May 5, 2024;

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