There is much in Madama Butterfly that evokes those hoary old narrative stereotypes – the gadding male, the ever faithful female (doomed to die), the orphaned child. Add to that its dated sense of cultural encounter, the proto-imperial Western exoticisation of ‘quaint’ Japanese traditions, and you have an opera that is completely, even embarrassingly, of its time. But Butterfly, being one of the most popular operas of all time, is also of our time. So how to strip it back to its core, and breathe new life into its more jaded conventions?

Ermonela Jaho (Cio-Cio-San), Troy Cook (Sharpless) and Brian Jagde (Pinkerton) © Scott Suchman
Ermonela Jaho (Cio-Cio-San), Troy Cook (Sharpless) and Brian Jagde (Pinkerton)
© Scott Suchman

Director Leslie Swackhamer’s production, performed in DC for the first time, provides one answer, and its critical choice lays in its presentation of the eponymous heroine. Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho is one of four different Butterflies who will sing the role in this production. She projected great warmth and strength, and lyrically spun those achingly lovely melodies, reaching thrilling volume. Swackhamer wanted to emphasise her innate power, dignity and agency, from the break with her hidebound relatives to her ritual suicide in the face of dishonor. Certainly, it is appropriate to rebalance the conventional reading of victimhood with something more feminist, although a certain pathos may be lost en route.

Ermonela Jaho (Cio-Cio San) © Scott Suchman
Ermonela Jaho (Cio-Cio San)
© Scott Suchman
Swackhamer’s Buttefly is less fragile, and more fierce than in other productions I have seen. Pinkerton doesn't rush in at the last to garner the audience’s attention by his thwarted remorse (his voice is heard off-stage); she dies alone – she has willed this – and appears somehow triumphant even in circumstances not of her own choosing. The humorous touches were also brought out so deftly that the audience even laughed at what one felt to be inappropriate places; when, for example, she announces that her child’s name was Sorrow, and when said child pats her on the head, hoping to make it all okay. Brian Jagde, in Mondrian-style jacket, made for an excellent Pinkerton, the cad par excellence with the careless charm of wealth, and the knowing luxury of being able to choose, enjoy and abandon several lives. He came forth with warm Italiante tone. Kristen Choi was lovely as the faithful Suzuki; Troy Cook's Sharpless had feeling and expression although the voice did not quite have ample heft for those admonitions and warnings he delivers. There was a strong dramatic moment in their trio in Act II, the urgency of their emotions as they rehearse the knowledge they share that Butterfly doesn’t, reached a steep pitch of intensity.

Jun Kaneko’s production is exuberantly vivid. Dare one say that it is so gorgeous that it impinges rather too much? Perhaps a shade. Clearly, an ardent work of creativity from this Japanese sculptor based in Omaha, the production transcends the usual clichés by abstracting the shapes and stylistic motifs of strands of Japanese culture, and gives them a contemporary spin. It looks beautiful. Down the road, at the Hishorn Museum, Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors are currently on display; this was a kindred aesthetic: polka dots and candy stripes aplenty, the concentric black rings of a cyclorama drawing the eye to the raised dais downstage (house, bedroom, place of encounter, emotion and execution), multi-coloured paint-box streamers – easily shifted to black for the scene where the Bonze makes Cio-Cio San a social outcast. The production was cleverly alive to the doubleness of things – to cross-cultural meanings, in short. Before curtain up, there were multiple kimonos hoisted over the stage, stretched out to look like naval flags. Ian McEuen's Goro, the marriage-broker, was half-robed and half-tailored in the Western fashion; likewise Yamadori.

Ermonela Jaho (Cio-Cio San) and Brian Jagde (Pinkerton) © Scott Suchman
Ermonela Jaho (Cio-Cio San) and Brian Jagde (Pinkerton)
© Scott Suchman

And then there were the screens. Here Kaneko complicated the presence of the traditional Shoji screen with contemporary video screens. The first of these seemed a bit of a disjunction, but by the time of the Humming Chorus, when on three giant screens were drawn cartoon-like each of the waiting shapes behind – wife, son and servant – one got the point. Kaneko’s world is joyous by default, intensely bright and innocent, just as Butterfly’s was; colour fades out towards the end as tragedy approaches. Still what we will take from this production is light and bright; there was a less sure creative hand at shaping tragedy, although the coloristic effects at the very end, a red sun on a white background dripping blood, were superb in their simplicity.

Philippe Auguin led the orchestra to lyrical heights, in a rendition which brought out the many aural pleasures of the score. This was, in short, a most enjoyable Butterfly, and if our hearts did not quite melt at the pathos of things, we did feel that with polka dots and candy stripes, the world, for all its mischief, was not such a bad place to be.

****1