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Butterfly Soars, Again

Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center
01/23/2015 -  & Jan 25, 28, 31, Feb 6, 8, 2015
Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly
Alexey Dolgov (Pinkerton), John Easterlin (Goro), Sofia Selowsky (Suzuki), Scott Hendricks (Sharpless), Ana María Martínez (Cio-Cio-San), Katherine McDaniel (Cousing), Joy Jonstone (Mother), Joe Key (Uncle Yakuside), Debra Alons (Aunt), Thomas Richards (Imperial Commissioner), Jon Janacek (Registrar), Reginald Smith Jr. (The Bonze), Morgan Perase (Prince Yamadori), D'Ana Lombard (Kate Pinkerton)
Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Giancarlo Guerrero (Conductor)
Louisa Muller (director), Christopher Oram (set and costume designer), Neil Austin (lighting designer)

A. Dolgov, A. M. Martínez (© Lynn Lane )

Puccini's Butterfly has landed once again on the Houston stage, in the same production and with the same Cio-Cio-San as its last visit. Ana María Martínez's first performance of the role was a breath of fresh air, and in the intervening years, her portrayal has become more nuanced and less naïve. She is in excellent voice, able to control phrases, pass through varying registers and convincingly portray Puccini's complex teenager, especially in the last two-thirds of the opera.

Alexey Dolgov also makes a return to Houston, giving a much stronger impression than in his appearance in the company's Ariadne auf Naxos. His voice is an excellent match for Pinkerton, as is his appearance: he and Martinez make quite an attractive couple on stage. Dolgov portrayed virility in the opening act and, in the third, a sense of too-little-too-late awareness of the tragedy he has caused. One wishes that his excellent singing could remedy Pinkerton's incorrigible character.

As in the 2010 production, the bulk of the cast was filled out by Houston Grand Opera Studio artists, many making their company debuts. Sofia Selowsky has a gorgeous voice, but her Suzuki was at times overpowered by Puccini's orchestrations. Her voice would be excellent in HGO's concurrent Magic Flute. Morgan Pearse's Yamadori and D'Ana Lombard's Pinkerton gave us but a glimpse of these two artists, both of whom also possess fine but subtle voices. Reginald Smith Jr. has impressed again and again, and his powerful but tastefully-deployed bass-baritone made the Bonze's brief appearance a highlight of the evening.

Michael Grandage's production, here revived by Louisa Muller, is visually intoxicating. The gradual shifts in the sky in the background smartly mimic the opera's plot, and the costuming is gorgeous. Giancarlo Guerrero seems intent at maximizing the contrast in Puccini's score, sometimes in harmony but sometimes at odds with the cast. The first act was urgent and tersely rhythmic, with brass and winds encouraged to project, at times catching the singers off guard with zippy tempos or overwhelming them with shear orchestral amplitude. In slower moments, Guerrero was prone to linger. "Un bel di vedremo", by now a Martinez signature, found the singer wanting to keep the music flowing, the conductor wanting to stop and milk each phrase for all its worth. The HGO chorus created an ethereal whisper in the "Humming Chorus" while skillfully adding their chatter to the story.

I long for a less-frequent Puccini work to come to the Houston Stage; the company has never done La fanciulla del West. Those who saw this Butterfly in 2010 can enjoy revisiting one of HGO's strongest recent productions, and those coming to it for the first time will find much to enjoy.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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