How well do we really know Madama Butterfly? So iconic that, for some, it's the archetype of the art form itself, Puccini's mega-popular opera has recently been coming in for renewed scrutiny. Heated debates about the representation and appropriation of foreign cultures by the standard Western repertoire are part of the context Seattle Opera has taken into consideration for its latest staging of a work that, by bottom-line, business-as-usual standards, is usually treated as reliable box office. The company decided to organise forums to address these issues openly, including a panel discussion with Asian-American artists and lobby displays highlighting racist distortions of Asians in American culture.

Alexey Dolgov (Pinkerton) and Lianna Haroutounian (Cio-Cio-San) © Jacob Lucas
Alexey Dolgov (Pinkerton) and Lianna Haroutounian (Cio-Cio-San)
© Jacob Lucas

Puccini's opera itself gets something of a dusting-off in this production (originally created for New Zealand Opera in 2013) by an Australia-based team making its Seattle Opera debut. Director Kate Cherry relied greatly on the strikingly beautiful visual language developed by her design colleagues to craft a tasteful realisation of Puccini's dramaturgical sensibility. Rather than veer towards extremes of naturalism or abstraction, she opted for a pleasing simplicity to foreground emotions, in harmony with Christina Smith's set of sliding shoji screens and Matt Scott's exquisitely calibrated lighting (a chief attraction here).

During the extensive Act 1 love duet, a multitude of covered lanterns floated slowly downwards from on high, bringing with them a funereal hint that subtly accentuated Cio-Cio-San's lingering anxiety at having just been officially ostracised. Drawn from research into traditional Japanese sources, the costumes contributed a feast of vibrant colours, contrasting with the oppressively blinding white of the Ugly Americans.

General director Aidan Lang stipulated that a few bits of material from Puccini's first version of Butterfly be incorporated. These involve the portrayals of Pinkerton when he first meets Cio-Cio-San in her milieu and of his American wife Kate. In his original Butterfly score –which Riccardo Chailly revived to open La Scala's season last December, where it was a humiliating fiasco in 1904 – Puccini made Pinkerton an even more despicable character, while Kate comes off as ruthlessly colluding rather than a mere passive witness to tragedy.

Alexey Dolgov (Pinkerton) and Lianna Haroutounian (Cio-Cio-San) © Jacob Lucas
Alexey Dolgov (Pinkerton) and Lianna Haroutounian (Cio-Cio-San)
© Jacob Lucas

Lang argues that Puccini's original vision encased the familiar love story within a metaphorical framework that posed a “strong critique of the prevailing imperialist attitudes towards Japan”: Cio-Cio-San's fate plays out the tragic consequences of imperialist exploitation by the West. But regardless of whether they perceived Butterfly as such, the opera's first audiences couldn't stomach such a repulsive character as the lead tenor, so Puccini caved in and added, for instance, Pinkerton's sentimental little exit aria “Addio, fiorito asil”. The standard version of the opera (the basis for this production, aside from the additions mentioned above) thus softens and “sanitises” the original impetus, in Lang's view.

The encounter with this 'restored' Kate Pinkerton (Sarrah Mattox, in an effective portrayal of imperious detachment) proved to be chilling indeed, intensifying the sense of Cio-Cio-San's isolation. Otherwise, there was nothing particularly radical about this production. Opening night's Pinkerton was, unfortunately, the weakest link. Tenor Alexey Dolgov was so clearly holding back that it came as little surprise when Lang announced at intermission that illness compelled him to bow out; Dominick Chenes, one of the two double-cast leads performing in alternation, took over and conveyed a sense of bitter passion in his brief reappearance. But the chance had been lost to try to formulate a new perspective on Pinkerton, as Dolgov was simply too pallid a presence throughout his lengthy first-act characterisation.

Lianna Haroutounian (Cio-Cio-San), Weston Hurt (Sharpless) and Renée Rapier (Suzuki) © Philip Newton
Lianna Haroutounian (Cio-Cio-San), Weston Hurt (Sharpless) and Renée Rapier (Suzuki)
© Philip Newton

Happily, in Lianna Haroutounian, opening night had a Cio-Cio-San of genuine star quality who was able to counterbalance this disappointment with a performance of thrilling emotional power and variety. She deployed a vast range of expressive vocal shadings, evoking at times a fearless defiance and faith, as well as an unassailable dignity, rather than the naive, 15-year-old bride whose victimhood is rightly so unsettling. Renée Rapier's compassionate Suzuki enhanced these traits, her amber mezzo complementing the bloom of Haroutounian's soprano to marvellous effect in the Flower Duet. 

Weston Hurt's Sharpless lacked a bit of focus in the first act – where it was hard not to imagine the futile exasperation of a White House staffer attempting to speak reason to a self-infatuated Donald Trump – but he gave a deeply moving rendition of the letter scene. Rodell Rosel's Goro was a study in unctuousness, while Ryan Bede delivered a bland Yamadori. Daniel Sumegi's scene as the Bonze was too rushed to have its needed impact. Despite many finely delineated details from conductor Carlo Montanaro, coordination issues marred the first act, and I missed a persuasive command of the larger sense of line and architecture.