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More 'Butterfly': Second Cast

Pinkerton (Thiago Arancam) and Butterfly (Ana María Martínez) on their wedding night, Madama Butterfly, Washington National Opera (photo by Scott Suchman)
It appears that Washington National Opera will capitalize on its latest production of North America's most often staged opera, Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Even though the company has scheduled an intense, exhausting schedule of fourteen performances (including one featuring singers from the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists program), most of the weekends have already sold out, and the remaining weekday performances are selling briskly. As already noted in my review of the first cast at opening night, Philippe Auguin is leading the orchestra in a nuanced rendition of the score, ground-shaking when it needs to be but also full of the sometimes delicate wash of colors Puccini painted with, which remains the best reason to hear one of these performances. The production is pretty enough, although the spinning parasols in the hands of the female chorus take the staging a bit too close to what one would expect in The Mikado ("Three little maids from school"). The constantly sliding Japanese screen doors, eventually ornamented with vintage bits of Americana, help disguise the use of a single, rather bland set but do begin to grate on the eyes. The staging of the opera's catastrophic conclusion, which hews close to the directions in the libretto and score, is devastatingly effective.

The choice between the two casts is fairly close, based on the second cast's opening performance on Tuesday night, with neither of them being so remarkable as to warrant an unqualified recommendation. If pressed to make a choice, I would go with Catherine Naglestad in the first cast, a much stronger voice for the title role. We have greatly admired the fine soprano Ana María Martínez on the stage at Santa Fe Opera and have followed her highly praised exploits in Europe the past few years. Her voice did not sound quite ready for Butterfly, however, as she shied away from many of the high notes (the one toward the end of the opening scene was so evanescent as to be almost inaudible) -- Scott Cantrell had similar reservations about her debut in the role last fall at Houston Grand Opera. As for her acting of the role, Martínez's coy, even hammy teenager was miles away from the more dignified, even stiff Naglestad: one wonders which of the two is closer to what director Ron Daniels envisioned. It is possible that he encouraged the singers to go in vastly different directions.

Other Reviews:

Anne Midgette, WNO's second "Butterfly" cast offers vague passion (Washington Post, March 3)
The rest of the cast was able but no more extraordinary than the first cast. Thiago Arancam, whom we have admired in San Francisco, had an oddly swallowed tone as Pinkerton, almost exactly what we remembered from him in Carmen a couple years ago, and seemed more a bewildered kid than a callous sexual tourist. He definitely had ping at the top, with a sobbing, wailing quality that could be affecting, but he tended to lunge at the big notes rather than knowing how to build to them, to create a larger shape out a bunch of small ones. His stage movement was similarly episodic, not as stiff as Alexey Dolgov in the first cast but also not as immediate vocally. The two supporting roles, Ning Liang's Suzuki and Hyung Yun's Sharpless, were no better or worse than their counterparts on opening night.

Washington National Opera's production of Madama Butterfly continues through March 19, in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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