For over a century, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly has been one of the most famous and widely staged operas in the world. The secret of this undying popularity lies in the complex and contradictive nature of the main heroine. Audiences always look for new vocal and dramatic interpretations of the character and keep their expectations high for the leading soprano.

Arancam and Martinez © Scott Suchman for WNO
Arancam and Martinez
© Scott Suchman for WNO

On Tuesday night the WNO was packed to see Ron Daniel’s production of Madama Butterfly with Ana Maria Martinez in the title role. Martinez, who recently added the role of the world’s most beloved geisha to her repertoire, portrayed her heroine as a strong young woman, desperately trying to get out of her “cocoon”, set by Japanese etiquette and tradition. In Act 1, still young and naïve, Madama Butterfly tried to make first steps towards her liberation. Now, married to a man from a free country, she believed she could become free as well! Equally impeccable in both high and low registers, Martinez’s voice, boasted an immense range, excellent control of sound and the most exquisite silvery tone.

A major character transformation took place during the three years that passed between Act 1 and 2. Motherhood turned Martinez’s Butterfly into a mature woman. Loneliness and poverty left a scar on her heart. Now stronger and older, she did not give up hopes for liberation. Having rejected Japanese culture, Butterfly tried to give her child something that she never had – freedom. Decorating her house with photographs of American landmarks and letters of English alphabet, she made her home “an American household” for the sake of her son.

Was this step big enough to achieve freedom? Certainly not. However, the strength and maturity of Martinez’s heroine, reassured us that her liberation was achievable. Filled with hope and heartfelt emotion, Martinez’s voice acquired dramatic mellowness and dark undertones in her delivery of Un bel di. The audience was too excited to wait for the end of the aria and exploded in a long ovation a few seconds before the orchestra stopped playing.

As the opera moved towards its chilling finale, Martinez’s performance reached its dramatic and vocal peak. The final scene was a true one-actress show. Martinez incorporated all means available to her into an emotionally intense performance. Even the expressive movement of her long black hair added to the drama of the scene. Having lost everything she ever cherished and hoped for, the liberated Butterfly was finally out into the light, only to face her inevitable tragic end.

Martinez’s performance overcame my highest expectations. Her interpretation of Puccini's heroine went far beyond just singing or acting. It was about living the life of a brave and free-spirited woman.

*****