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Radiant Singing Opens HGO Season

Brown Theater, Wortham Center
10/22/2010 -  and October 24, 30, November 2*, 4, 5, 7, 11, 2010
Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly
Joseph Calleja (Pinkerton), Rodell Rosel (Goro), Lucy Schaufer (Suzuki), Levin Hernandez (Sharpless), Ana María Martínez (Cio-Cio-San), Katherine McDaniel (Cousin), Darlene James Clark (Mother), Joe Key (Uncle Yakuside), Debra Alons (Aunt), Tommy Ajai George (Imperial Commissioner), James C. Chamberlain (Registrar), Robert Pomakov (The Bonze), Boris Dyakov (Prince Yamadori), Rachel Sørensen (Kate Pinkerton)
Houston Grand Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Patrick Summers (conductor)
Michael Grandage (director), Christopher Oram (set and costume designer), Neil Austin (lighting designer)

J. Calleja and A. Martínez (© Felix Sanchez)

HGO's Madama Butterfly is a triumphant start to the 2010-11 season. The centerpiece of the success is Ana María Martínez's marvelous performance in her role debut as the title character. She headlines a cast of technical depth and dramatic acumen, all enrobed in a tasteful, richly detailed visual production.

With a realistic, subtle set dominated by a gracefully arched ramp that beautifully frames the action on stage, Christopher Oram has perfectly complemented the music of the opera. There is no attempted intrusion on his part, no need for the audience to raise an eyebrow at any point, and one feels that the concept of Oram's staging and Neil Austin's lighting was just right. Everything is organic and necessary, from the sliding screen's use as the major set change piece to the rotating precipice that traverses full-circle as Butterfly waits for Pinkerton's arrival. The cliff at which she waits inherently suggests peril, yet she is perched courageously and unstintingly at its very edge.

From the pit emerges richly detailed Puccini orchestration, controlled with superb rhythmic flexibility and infallible symbiosis with the singers by Patrick Summers. The HGO orchestra is consistently great in Italian opera, and the best aspects of their playing were on excellent display here. Intonation, ensemble and musicality were exemplary, from piquant oboe solos to ravishing tuttis. The quality extended through the HGO Chorus, singing its small but essential parts memorably.

Ana María Martínez sings as if this role were tailored to her vocal strengths, matching and possibly exceeding her always-excellent abilities as an actress. The frequent, abrupt changes in Butterfly's mood are matched by noticeable and convincing changes in vocal timbre, every gradation from utmost tenderness to fiercest rage controlled and convincing. "Un bel di, vedremo" is the vocal highlight that it should be, Martínez treating us to a tastefullyphrased rendition of the opera's Pandora's box. It wouldn't be surprising if other major houses are already fiercely competing to engage her in this role. Joseph Calleja makes his HGO debut as Pinkerton, and he will hopefully be a frequent performer on the Brown Theater stage. His is a true Puccini tenor, possessing the perfect amount of brightness in the high register to instantly convey pathos. Calleja dominates the opening of the opera, oozing virility and confidence. It is always surprising that we don't absolutely hate Pinkerton by the end of the opera, but Puccini somehow composes sympathy for his character into the music, and Calleja perfectly tunes into and emphasizes that sentiment. The two leads have outstanding vocal chemistry and are convincing as lovers in Act I. Heard blindly, these two singers' delivery the act's closing love duet could easily be mistaken for Freni and Pavarotti.

The supporting cast is excellent as well. Lucy Schafer is a superb Suzuki, singing with fearlessness and supporting Martínez through and through. Rodell Rosel impressively combines a pitifully pathetic Alberich with a conniving, catalytic Iago to create a superbly menacing Goro. Boris Dyakov seems tentative as Yamadori at first, but his slight underplaying of the role makes Butterfly's rejection of redemption even more disheartening. Robert Pomakov is powerful and sniveling as the Bonze.

It is no surprise that HGO has to add a performance of this production to its calendar. Some Houston operagoers might be tempted to shrug off another Butterfly, but rumors of excellence travel quickly. When those rumors are confirmed, it becomes impossible to resist one of the city's cultural jewels.

Marcus Karl Maroney



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