Review: The Dallas Opera's MADAME BUTTERFLY Stirs Hearts and Minds at Winspear Opera House

Starring TDO favorite Latonia Moore, the production runs February 18, 20, 23, and 26

By: Feb. 19, 2022

Review: The Dallas Opera's MADAME BUTTERFLY Stirs Hearts and Minds at Winspear Opera House

After over two years without a fully-staged opera production, there's something refreshing in The Dallas Opera's (TDO) choice to return to the Winspear Opera House with material both familiar and defamiliarizing, something with great emotional depth that also requires audiences to reconsider the piece in light of ongoing conversations about race, politics, and culture. Puccini's beloved Madame Butterfly fits this bill perfectly, and while TDO's newest production doesn't always journey into new horizons as much as one might hope, it marks the long-awaited and triumphant return of an art form that cannot help but remind us of our shared humanity. The production runs March 18, 20, 23, and 26.

The plot of Madame Butterfly is likely familiar to most audience members whether they realize it or not. In the early-1900s, United States Naval Officer B. F. Pinkerton arrives in Nagasaki, Japan, where he has arranged to marry Cio-Cio-San, a young geisha more commonly referred to as "Butterfly." Not long after this marriage, though, Pinkerton returns to the States, unknowingly leaving behind a pregnant Cio-Cio-San to care for their child on her own. It is not until three years later, when Pinkerton returns with his new American bride, that he learns about his son. These revelations culminate in one of the most tragic deaths in opera history, a story so powerful that it inspired much of the plot of Boublil and Schönberg's hit musical Miss Saigon, though here the shadow of a passing warship takes the place of a Black Hawk helicopter.

As Cio-Cio-San, Latonia Moore brings a bright warmth to the role indicative of the character's youth (the libretto says she is fifteen) while also creating a playful personality that belies a greater maturity than may initially be apparent. Moore does more with a sweetly sung phrase and a winking smile than many artists accomplish with entire arias, and she fills the auditorium with the full breadth of her voice throughout the opera's numerous climaxes.

On the other hand, Evan LeRoy Johnson faces an uphill battle against the audience as Pinkerton, a character whose personality is as paper-thin as the walls of the house he buys in Nagasaki. Johnson sings the part beautifully, his soaring tenor aptly expressing the lieutenant's powerful (yet shallow) feelings of infatuation for his young Butterfly, even as the libretto leaves him with little room to grow. His cries of shame near the show's conclusion match his earlier love songs in intensity if not in emotion, perhaps more of a reflection of Puccini's attitude toward Americans than Johnson's own talents.

While Moore and Johnson are seasoned professionals renowned for their roles across the United States and Europe, the cast members who make up Madame Butterfly's secondary characters hold their own alongside these towering talents, and Dallas should be so lucky to see them return to its stages in the future. As the marriage broker Goro, Martin Bakari provides much of the comic relief early in the show, singing with a voice as sickly sweet as honey and sprightly as a sprite. Michael Adams plays Sharpless, the U.S. Consul, with a nervous energy as humorous as it is anxiety-provoking, especially in his final scenes with Cio-Cio-San and her servant, Suzuki, played by Kirstin Chávez. Chávez's performance as the doting confidante feels underplayed at first, but she assumes the full emotional weight of the role in the production's second half. Her brightly and warmly sung duet with Moore as their characters spread flowers around the house in anticipation of Pinkerton's arrival is one of the show's vocal triumphs.

However, no production of Madame Butterfly, no matter how well-crafted, can escape the opera's fraught racial politics. No serious scholar or patron of opera would deny the orientalist elements in Puccini's work, which is more a distorted stereotype of Japanese customs than it is a well-informed tribute. As opera companies across the country grapple with questions of representing people and communities of color onstage, Madame Butterfly asks artists and audiences to consider how such a circle can be squared in a way that communicates the undeniable beauty of Puccini's music and his characters' emotional lives without perpetuating prejudice and hate.

To their credit, TDO appears to have fully invested in audience education for this production that raises these questions-even if such questions cannot be answered in full. The program features a short essay explaining the orientalist roots of the opera as well as a longer piece examining Cio-Cio-San as a powerful yet flawed proto-feminist heroine. On the company's website, audiences can (and should) watch a panel discussion between TDO creatives and representatives from the Black and Asian Opera Alliances about representations and how the art form can begin to correct harmful practices within the field.

With these moves toward reparation in mind, perhaps it makes sense that the production's design appears deceptively simple. Characters move from scene to scene with the move of a papered panel, and the cast's costumes act as extensions of their characters' roles and personalities without resorting to unnecessary cultural appropriation. Pinkerton enters in a simple white suit to start the show, a choice that becomes more emotionally profound at the first act's end when Cio-Cio-San steps into the moonlight in her plain white robe. Both sets and costumes were designed by Michael Yeargen, and it is no wonder that his designs return to the TDO stage year after year.

Perhaps, by refusing to exoticize these characters and cultures more than the libretto already does, by stripping down the opera to its emotional core that has rightly entranced audiences for over a century, The Dallas Opera's Madame Butterfly makes a welcome move toward equity, toward telling stories that reflect the diverse audiences coming to see them. That these stories are being told by some of the greatest artists in the field is just a wonderful bonus.


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