Boston Lyric Opera opened a new production of Madama Butterfly on Thursday night, with gorgeous results. From the beautifully articulated set to the connection of the singers, the production was clean and inspired.

Yunah Lee (Cio-Cio-San) © Eric Antoniou
Yunah Lee (Cio-Cio-San)
© Eric Antoniou

While the music and the libretto go unchanged, different productions bring out different aspects of the well-loved opera. In one, Butterfly’s lost honor may be central to the retelling. In another, the heartlessness of Pinkerton (and by extension, Americans) may be the focal point. Directed by Lillian Groag, Boston Lyric Opera’s Madama Butterfly revolves around Cio-Cio San’s lost dream of happiness as wife, mother and American.

In Puccini’s opera, Lieutenant Pinkerton rents a little house and a wife in Nagasaki for 999 years, with a right to cancel any time. The “right to cancel any time” is important to him, because he has every intention of returning to America for a real wife. While Cio-Cio San, known as Butterfly, signs the contract, she may know intellectually that she is still a geisha, but at 15 years old she believes that Pinkerton loves her and she loves him in return. She goes so far as to abandon her faith in favor of Christianity, a decision which costs her dearly as her connection to her own culture and family dissolves. Both Butterfly and Pinkerton believe what they want to believe, turning a blind eye to the truth and inevitable outcome.

When Pinkerton leaves Nagasaki, Cio-Cio San believes that he will return as promised. She waits three years. When he does come back, with his wife, he learns that he has a son. Finally understanding the truth of the situation, Cio-Cio San gives her son to Pinkerton and his wife, and kills herself.

Boston Lyric Opera’s production opened with a visual of Butterfly’s father as he received the dagger from the Mikado and committed Seppuku. Later in the opera, during an interlude, the curtain rises to show Butterfly’s vision of her life as Madama Pinkerton in the United States, celebrating her son’s birthday with her husband. These scenes help to tell the story, giving shape to the forces that drive Cio-Cio San. Who she is in Act II is a combination of her father’s honorable death, and her hope for an honorable life.

When it becomes evident to everyone but Cio-Cio San that Pinkerton is not coming back, the marriage broker, Goro, begins suggesting new husbands for her. She rejects them all, including the most recent suitor, Prince Yamadori. In this version, Yamadori kisses Butterfly’s hand as he departs, leaving Butterfly visibly moved. One can’t help but wonder what goes on in an 18-year-old’s head. Could things have been different had Pinkerton not met her first? Was there hope for love with someone else? Butterfly brushes away the thought and continues to wait for her husband.

In this production, Yunah Lee made her BLO debut as Cio-Cio San, a role she has played over 100 times. While opera often requires suspension of disbelief, Lee’s Butterfly was a natural fit. She was a petite match for Vania Dinyar’s tall and cavalier Pinkerton. In one scene, Pinkerton mistakes the souls of Butterfly’s ancestors for puppets, blithely juggling them. As Suzuki, Kelley O’Connor added depth to the role of Butterfly’s maid. When the two women leave each other, knowing what is to come, it is one more step toward needing a box of tissues handy.

The set design by John Conklin began as lofty, open and hopeful, shifting as the story played out. When Butterfly sang her “Un bel dì vedremo” in Act II, a black panel descended from the fly-space to separate her visually and emotionally from the reality behind and around her.

Madama Butterfly opened the season at Boston Lyric Opera with a fresh look at a familiar story. For patrons who have seen the opera elsewhere, it’s well worth a revisit. Patrons who are new to the opera are in for a real treat. Either way, prepare to be moved by the sweetness of the relationships, and the hope for a life with honor.