LA Opera presents a vivid and dramatic Madama Butterfly

LA Opera presented Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly in the first of a six-performance run on March 12. Last staged in its 2012-13 season, Madama Butterfly returns to Los Angeles with English stage director Lee Blakely’s tasteful adaptation of the operatic staple. Puerto-Rican soprano Ana María Martínez, fresh from the Metropolitan Opera’s own production of Butterfly, sang the titular character under the baton of Maestro James Conlon.

Madama Butterfly is one of the most performed operas in history. Initially panned by patrons at its 1904 premiere in Milan, the opera has grown into an audience favorite and remains widely popular. Given Butterfly’s esteem, one can almost guarantee astronomical ticket sales and a full house whenever it is performed — this is perhaps why Madama Butterfly is staged so frequently by major opera houses across the globe.

Despite the opera’s commercial success, the plot itself is plagued with themes of misogyny, colonialism and racism. The story centers on Cio-Cio San (otherwise known as Butterfly), a young Japanese geisha who is married off to American lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton. Though she instantly falls in love with Pinkerton, he leaves shortly after their marriage with a promise to return. Cio-Cio San waits earnestly for his return for three years, with her fervent love serving as her only optimism.

Regardless of the problematic tones present in the plot, the production was wonderfully executed. Blakeley’s adaptation, which debuted at Santa Fe Opera in 2010, is new to Los Angeles. What proved to be most exquisite about the production was the meticulous use of color used to convey the emotional intentions of the scene. Act I began with what seemed to be another classical staging, with a Japanese wedding celebration vibrantly adorned with flowers and traditional Japanese aesthetics. However, the palate of Acts II and III were monotonously grey, reflecting the melancholic condition of Butterfly’s situation.

At the podium, Maestro Conlon once again showcased his versatility as an artist, achieving an ardent verismic passion from the musicians. In the program notes, Conlon states, “Love and life, lived and lost together, are the elements of melodrama. This common theme is not his exclusive property. But in 12 operas … Puccini filters and distills it in a very personal way, almost exclusively through the agency of the maltreated woman.”

In the title role, Martínez was dramatically engaged from beginning to end. Though it seemed like she held back vocally in the first act, most likely due to the rigor of the role itself, she sang spectacularly from Act II onward. From a musician’s standpoint, it was refreshing to hear a singer who sings with such impeccable control and technique. Her aria within the final scene was the highlight of the evening.

Other standouts include mezzo-soprano Milena Kitic, who sang a luscious-toned Suzuki. As Pinkerton, Italian tenor Stefano Secco possesses a voice that bright and focused, though his upper register seemed strained at times. Kihun Yoon, a current Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist at LA Opera, made a powerful Sharpless.

Madama Butterfly runs until April 3 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. More information regarding future performances can be found online.