BWW Review: Houston Ballet Showcases Sumptuous MADAME BUTTERFLY and Spare SON OF CHAMBER SYMPHONY
The current offering of the Houston Ballet is a study of contrasts - economy and luxury.
First on the program is SON OF CHAMBER SYMPHONY, in its Houston premiere, choreographed by Stanton Welch to music by John Adams. This contemporary piece, which had its world premiere in 2012, is starkly abstract, a pure distillation of dance set to distilled, atonal music. As such, it is meticulously performed by a company of point-perfect dancers, moving with mechanical precision to the beat of the score. On a bare stage, backed with a geometric pattern of light, the troupe of male and female dancers execute an almost encyclopedic array of steps and positions, each as impressive as the last, and collectively amazing in the sheer stamina required. Even the pared-down costumes by Travis Halsey contribute to the overall feeling -- or lack of it. The abbreviated tutus of the ballerinas seem to move with a life of their own as a part of the choreography. For the purist aficionados of the abstract in modern dance, it is a treat.
MADAME BUTTERFLY, the centerpiece of the evening, is as sumptuous as SON OF CHAMBER SYMPHONY is spare. Just about every Asian motif in the catalog is onstage, and the effect is stunning. From the first glimpse of Butterfly against a curtain on which were projected butterfly-like wings, the scene is set. The scenic design and costumes by Peter Farmer are a riot of color and exoticism, the audience treated with one splendid fabric after another.
MADAME BUTTERFLY, first choreographed by Stanton Welch some twenty-five years ago in Australia, premiered in Houston in 2002. The opera by Giacomo Puccini, whose music is used for this production, premiered in 1902, and is well-known, both for its score and its story. Set in late 19th-century Japan, it tells the tragic love story of a coarse American naval officer, Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton (Ian Casady) and the delicate and loyal Butterfly (Sara Webb).
Pinkerton falls in love with 15-year-old Cio-Cio San (Butterfly), who works as a geisha now that her once prominent family has lost its position. Pinkerton takes advantage. He arranges to marry Butterfly with the help of Goro (Charles-Louis Yoshiyama), a marriage broker, in a Japanese ritual even though he is engaged to Kate, an American girl back home. Then he and Butterfly live as husband and wife, with Butterfly bearing a son. Never intending to make the arrangement permanent, he subsequently returns to the United States, leaving Butterfly and their young son to fend for themselves. Butterfly yearns for his return and never stops believing in him. She even spurns a marriage offer from the wealthy Prince Yamadori (Christopher Coomer) though she is living in poverty with only faithful companion Suzuki (Jessica Collado) and her son by her side. But when Pinkerton finally does reappear, he is with his American wife, Kate (Jacquelyn Long), and he has come to take his son back with them. The heartbroken Butterfly reluctantly agrees. Then, in the final iconic scene set to the music of Puccini's "Un bel di vedremo," she commits suicide.
The wedding scene that comprises Act I is a lively and sometimes comic presentation of the wedding party, attended by American friends of Pinkerton as well as Japanese friends and family of the bride. The ceremony itself is brief, and there is much dancing and drinking until Butterfly's uncle, the Bonze (priest), arrives. The Bonze, played by Linnar Looris, chastises Butterfly for converting to Christianity. This is too much for Pinkerton, who begins to shoo the guests out so that he and Butterfly may be alone. Once that is accomplished, as the program states coyly, "slowly, [Butterfly] abandons her innocence, and they lie down beneath the stars."
This is the understatement of the evening. As danced by Sara Webb (Butterfly) and Ian Casady (Lt. Pinkerton), the bedding scene scorches the stage. In a lovely and tender but erotic pas de deux, the couple melt into an embrace. They do eventually "lie down beneath the stars," but it is clearly not to take a nap.
MADAME BUTTERFLY is pure theatrics, and is traditionally enjoyed as such. The company acquits itself beautifully, and the music, under the direction of Ermanno Florio, is perfection. To be honest, I am more than satisfied.
In the program, Mr. Welch says, "I tried to include in this story elements of racism and sexism, and how the two destroy everything. The moment a person is not sensitive or delicate to the balance between cultures, everything goes bad." In the main, I think he succeeded. Though go-between Goro comes off as rather a "Stepinfetchit" caricature, the storyline portrays the Westerner Pinkerton as the villain of the piece, selfish and conniving, and completely unworthy of the trusting Butterfly. His American wife is simply uncaring. Butterfly is loyal and unselfish, giving up her child for his own good, and for love of the lieutenant.
While I tend to make judgments on artistic endeavors purely on the basis of art, I am of course aware of the concept of orientalism, the treatment of Asian motifs and customs from a Western perspective that is less than accurate, if not downright condescending. I take it as a product of a time and place. Not everyone sees it the same way. Some ballet goers have a particular antipathy to the opera and movie depictions of BUTTERFLY for what they consider insulting stereotypes and/or feel that Asian roles danced by non-Asians are a problem.
I cannot be the final arbiter. Edward Albee once told me, "A critic's job is to give his readers enough information for them to decide whether or not they want to see a production." I hope I have done that.
MADAME BUTTERFLY closes October 2. Remaining performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Brown Theater at the Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas St. 713-227-2787. houstonballet.org. $25-$195.
Run time: Approximately 2 hours
Sara Webb as Cio-Cio-San in MADAME BUTTERFLY
Madeline Skelly, left, and Natalie Varnum, right in SON OF CHAMBER SYMPHONY