So, DMV opera companies (or at least 2) seem to be all about redeeming themselves with solid Butterflies this spring. And with the cherry blossom madness upon us (as indicated by the crappy traffic by the river and the chicken "cherryaki" on the Old Ebbits menu) what can one do? VA Opera served up a satisfying version yesterday, as driven by an excellent cast.
Sandra Lopez does not hail from the school of Cio-Cio San's concerned with producing a sound that always comes from a beautiful place, such as the Cio-Cio San Catherine Naglestad presented at WNO earlier this year (sorry, going to be that kind of review, its in my head). That means that her first act included a bit of a rocky warm-up and a Love Duet that was solid but not especially notable. But about three minutes into Act II, one realized how fully she was to own the emotional center of this show (as your Cio-Cio San should, of course, but there's a big difference between "should" and really doing it). With her chief weapon a throbbing, commanding upper register that fully embodies the tortured emotional swells of Puccini's score, Lopez created the kind of high stakes vocal (and emotional) intensity that Butterfly thrives on. I quibbled that WNO's Act III dragged a tad, but there was little danger of any dragging when Lopez was onstage--she is a vocal actress to watch.
The rest of the principals were also noteworthy. Levi Hernandez offered a fine, lyrical Sharpless, and Magdalena Wor's rich mezzo imbued her Suzuki with the necessary gravity. The high musical standard was matched by the pit, where Joseph Walsh led the orchestra (members of the Richmond Symphony) in a reading that credibly plumbed both the sensitivity and savagery of the score.
If the WNO's Butterfly (sorry again) production exemplified the Butterfly-by-the-numbers aesthetic at its most elegant, the VA Opera was generally that same approach at its most serviceable, and risking garishness at times with great washes of pink and turquoise on the all white surface of the set. The periodic introduction of a large cherry blossom branch added some much needed texture.
Dramatic direction was solid, particularly in the choices of the blisteringly staged climax: Suzuki mans up and ends up handing Butterfly the knife, who doesn't kill herself until after Pinkerton's cries. He then runs in, rips down a screen, and finds her slumped over. But some of the more substantial indulgences didn't hang together. Points are due for allowing an actual curtain between Act II and Act III, and for the thoughtful choice of staging the instrumental opening of Act III as Butterfly's dream during the night. But the dream sequence didn't have much to offer in terms of interesting stagecraft--instead we get Trouble, and a dude in a suit billed as 'Future Trouble', chasing butterfly props (groan). The piece gives us just about enough of opera's most famous child prop to tug at our heartstrings without becoming total tripe--I'm afraid any more time spent pondering his fate just serves to dilute the main drama.