The summer season brings us from downtown Washington DC to Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts out in Virginia. Tonight in their splendid open-air amphitheatre, the bill of fare was Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. An opera so well-known and well-loved, it was the ideal showcase for the budding talents of the Filene Young Artists program in the principal roles and the Studio Artists in supporting ones. And we certainly do have some voices to watch! Alexandra Loutsion, as Cio-Cio San, has a really lovely voice. From when we first heard her, as she processed up from beneath the stage with her fellow geishas, that much was clear. She was particularly good at the gradual amplification of both volume and emotion, building up towards an unbearable climax in her celebrated aria, Un bel dì, in Act II. Yet she still kept something in reserve, as befits her character, until the moment where she realises all is lost, when her singing should sound insane. Loutsion’s emotional and vocal range were pleasing.

Alexandra Loutsion (Cio-Cio-San), Joo Won Kang (Sharpless) and Robert Watson (Pinkerton) © Teddy Wolff
Alexandra Loutsion (Cio-Cio-San), Joo Won Kang (Sharpless) and Robert Watson (Pinkerton)
© Teddy Wolff

J’nai Bridges, a dramatic mezzo, was a convincing Suzuki: in her “flower duet” with Butterfly, both voices intermingled with great loveliness. Indeed, the duets and trios were some of the high points of the evening: the singers vocally and dramatically connected to each other and this could be felt. A particular favourite was the anguished Act II trio for Pinkerton (Robert Watson) Sharpless (Joo Won Kang) and Suzuki.

Then there was that extraordinary choral and orchestral representation of Butterfly’s vigil: the longest night in opera, fittingly a song without words. The Choral Arts Society performed the Humming Chorus, that exceptional moment of operatic vocalise, touchingly although not maybe as numinous as it might have been. The National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Grant Gershon was solid, although I confess that I felt the need for more tonal contrast at times, for more ‘bite’ in those foreboding dissonances throughout the score, and some more luxuriance in the treatment of those gorgeously-spun melodies.

Alexandra Loutsion (Cio-Cio-San) and J’nai Bridges (Suzuki) © Kim Witman
Alexandra Loutsion (Cio-Cio-San) and J’nai Bridges (Suzuki)
© Kim Witman

As regards the choreography, Japanese culture was broadly imagined but not minutely observed: there appeared to be no one in the credits specifically responsible for the interpretation of Hanamachi culture and movements and one could tell. In other operas, this might not matter as much, but in Butterfly, because the emphasis lies just on those details, and this distinctive finesse is precisely what Butterfly represents and sings about, and because one of the whole points is the contrast between a ritualistic culture and the crass, heedless alcohol-fuelled imperialism of Pinkerton’s USA, a failure here is disappointing. Butterfly’s movements as a geisha were less than graceful; we had to suspend belief as to her youth, playfulness, innocence and artfulness of movement. A greater consciousness of the importance of these minutiae would have enhanced the production.

Tara Faircloth, the director, added four non-singing spirits to almost every scene. Anonymous and masked, they flitted, moved, gestured – ancestral spirits, harbingers of death, observers, judges and finally protectors of the boy, the future. One got the point, but four tall men can be rather obtrusive and they tended to distract from the intimacy between the characters, especially in the love duet in Act I, where they paraded the stage with white lamps.

<i>Madama Butterfly</i> at Wolf Trap Opera © Kim Witman
Madama Butterfly at Wolf Trap Opera
© Kim Witman

An Operascape production designed by Zane Pihlstrom, the set was therefore of the simplest kind, but simplicity is not necessarily a bad thing. The large circular video projections (designed by S Katy Tucker) hanging above the stage showed transient pictures of sky, water, cherry blossoms, and were admittedly rather on the lurid side and often a bit fuzzy (intended?), but were enough to give a conventional sense of place and a feeling of the passage of time. We never quite made it into the delicate Karyukai - the flower and willow world – of the geisha, but we got the general impression. Rather more effective were the three raised circular daises which functioned as separate but interrelated spaces, symbolic of a whole culture.

Butterfly, as I have always seen it played, is an unmitigated tragedy. But here, Faircloth had decided on some attenuation. When Pinkerton finally arrived on stage, Butterfly’s dying eyes were adamantly focused on how he would react to his son. The little boy ran to his father – they shook hands American-style (a wry echo of an earlier moment in the opera) –and then embraced. Only then did Butterfly’s spirit rest. Although sorrow is not quite turned into joy, this was a rather upbeat and, dare I say it, American ending. But given the rough justice meted out to Butterfly throughout, nobody would grudge her this one final consolation. In any case, the scene, precisely staged, with Butterfly’s final fluttering motion of the hand, carried a certain electric charge.