A major new role for a soprano returning to one of her favorite houses. A local debut by one of the world's leading tenors. A spare and elegant production by a famous British director.
The Houston Grand Opera could hardly have asked for more as it opened its 56th season Friday night with "Madame Butterfly," Puccini's cautionary East-meets-West tale of a Japanese child bride seduced and abandoned by an American naval officer.
Singing the title role for the first time, Ana Maria Martinez displayed a sturdy lyric soprano full of warm colors and delicate shadings. She rose easily to the optional D-flat to cap her entrance in Act 1 and made it through the grueling marathon of Acts 2 and 3 (performed here without intermission) with no sign of fatigue.
At this point, however, she doesn't quite have the visceral power or cutting edge required to soar above the heavily orchestrated climaxes that Puccini wrote for his heroine. "Un bel di," the aria in which she rapturously imagines the return of her beloved, was a touch too restrained. And her farewell to her young son before she kills herself was merely sorrowful when it should be gut-wrenching.
Dramatically, Martinez conveyed a touching vulnerability, and she did a plausible job of enacting Butterfly's transformation from lovestruck 15-year-old to destitute mother clinging to her illusions. But here, too, as in her vocal performance, there was a trace of blandness, of playing it safe.
Martinez, a native of Puerto Rico, is an alumna of the Houston Grand Opera Studio and has performed here frequently, so it was natural she should try out such a demanding role on home ground. It may well be that with time this gifted artist will grow into a memorable Butterfly.
No such reservations are needed for her co-star, tenor Joseph Calleja, who brought all the ardor and beauty of tone one could wish for to the role of Pinkerton. In fact, so sweet and alluring is the sound of his vibrato-driven voice that he made the arrogant lieutenant less despicable than he often seems. The Maltese-born Calleja, who will be singing three major roles this season at the Metropolitan Opera, has matured into one of the finest lyric tenors before the public today.
Among the supporting cast, baritone Levi Hernandez made a strong impression as Sharpless, the American consul who warns Pinkerton not to trifle with Butterfly's feelings. Hernandez, a native of El Paso, Texas, has a modest-size but wonderfully mellow and burnished sound that aided his sympathetic portrayal. Tenor Rodell Rosel, born in the Philippines, also stood out as an animated Goro, the practical marriage broker.
For its new production, the company brought in Michael Grandage, artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse in London. Working with him were Christopher Oram, who did the sets and costumes, and Neil Austin, the lighting designer _ the same team responsible for the Tony-winning play "Red" on Broadway earlier this year.
Their "Butterfly" set is a series of rising steps dominated by a curved red path that begins at the front of the stage and winds to the back (a bit reminiscent of the yellow brick road in "The Wizard of Oz," except that this path ultimately leads to despair).
Butterfly's house is represented by a set of screens that slide on and off stage. A couple of trees provide a hint of nature. Vivid period costumes and subtle lighting shifts complete the magical atmosphere.
At the end of Act 2, when Butterfly, her young son, and her attendant, Suzuki, keep an all-night vigil for Pinkerton's return, Grandage creates a stunning effect. They climb to the back of the stage and sit overlooking a hillside with their backs to us, while the Humming Chorus sings offstage. Then, the set slowly revolves 180 degrees until all three are now sitting at the front, gazing motionless over the audience.
Patrick Summers, the company's music director, led an inspired performance that made the familiar score sound fresh and brought out Puccini's genius for unexpected subtleties.