By Bryson David Hoff
Some works of art have a complicated legacy. What was, in the past, viewed as progressive and groundbreaking over time comes to be seen as backwards and problematic. Opera, a medium not known for quickly changing with the times, is particularly susceptible to this. Case-in-point, it’s only been within the past few years that major opera houses have called for an end to the use of blackface in productions of Verdi’s Otello.
A simple review of a single production cannot and should not try to encompass the entire conversation regarding race and representation in opera, which deserves a much deeper dive than 500 words can offer. However, in 2020, it feels disingenuous to review a production of Madama Butterfly without acknowledging that, unlike the Otello example, the practice of casting non-Asian performers in Asian roles continues to be common in this, one of the most often produced operatic works across the world, and the current production at the Lyric Opera is no exception to that trend.
Set in Japan’s Meiji period, the plot concerns the marriage between American naval officer (tenor Brian Jagde) and a teenaged geisha (soprano Ana María Martínez). The tragedy of the situation is that the marriage contract is designed to be easily broken and the geisha, Cio-Cio-San, soon finds herself abandoned by her husband, raising a child alone while rapidly approaching poverty, all the while clinging to the hope that her husband will return.
For its part, the Lyric Opera’s production does seem to be cognizant of the problematic nature of its source material. The scenic and costume design, both by Christopher Oram, avoid a lot of the decadent Orientalism that pervades other productions, opting for a stripped down aesthetic that seems to have been inspired more by the photography of the period than the often inaccurate Western portrayals of Japan in art. Likewise, the way Colin Ure’s supertitles phrase the translation of the libretto leans very heavily on the callousness of the American characters, as does Michael Grandage’s direction, shepherded by revival director Louisa Muller.
The vocal performances are solid across the board. Martinez’s vocal color is perhaps a bit darker than your usual Cio-Cio-San, but that is certainly not a bad thing. Her handling of the legato passages is so effortless, it’s little wonder that this has become something of a signature role for her. Jagde likewise turns in a good vocal performance while his acting choices suit his character’s blustering immaturity perfectly.
Ultimately, there is a reason Madama Butterfly is considered one of Puccini’s finest works and is consistently so frequently performed the world over. The score is undeniably beautiful and the story is poignant, shrewdly incorporating and intertwining themes of colonialism and human frailty. The production currently playing at the Lyric Opera has been staged with a clear eye towards these elements and, by all accounts, is a fine Madama Butterfly. However, with discussions regarding racially-conscious casting finally reaching the world of opera, there is still a strange sensation watching a story unfold in which more than half of the characters are of Asian descent, but only one of the performers is. Ultimately, it is down to the individual audience member whether or not this fact is a deal breaker.
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents “”Madama Butterfly at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago through March 8. More information and tickets are found here.