Dallas Opera’s crowd-pleasing “Butterfly” raises cultural questions

Sun Feb 20, 2022 at 2:45 pm
By Richard Sylvester Oliver
Latonia Moore in the title role and Evan LeRoy Johnson as Pinkerton in Dallas Opera’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Photo: Scott Suchman

As Covid loosens its grip on the performing arts, some opera companies are committing themselves to more than just artistry: They’re trying to be better — more mindful of staff, performers, repertoire and their home communities amid reckonings over race and gender. 

Even before 2020, there were heightened sensitivities around opera casting and reassessments of some iconic works. The pandemic only intensified those discussions. So it was a curious choice for the Dallas Opera to reopen its doors on Friday night — among the later opera companies to do so — with Puccini’s problematic Madame Butterfly. 

Based on the raucous ovations at curtain inside the packed Winspear Opera House, the TDO’s first outing after two years away was a success. But there is more to staging Butterfly in 2022 than pleasing entertainment-starved opera goers. 

Puccini’s three-act tragedy from 1904 chronicles the short life of Cio-Cio-San, an impoverished teen-aged Japanese geisha. Her obsession with the American promise of abundance sends her into the arms of the flippant Lt. Pinkerton, forsaking the traditions of her culture in favor of his. Almost immediately, she is dumped — left alone with her handmaid, Suzuki, and soon after, a young son. 

The lovestruck Cio-Cio, nicknamed “Butterfly,” waits years for the father’s return, only to learn that he has long since moved on to an American wife. Humiliated, she gives up the child to the couple and commits suicide by hara-kiri in a grim return to her cultural roots.

It is a compellingly dark and wrenching drama, peppered with clever moments of levity and apt humor. But, like a lot of Western art focused on other cultures, stereotypes and misrepresentations abound. Orientalism was in vogue in Puccini’s Europe, as a way to explore taboo topics without offending popular sensibilities. 

But there are issues with more recent works, too. Philip Glass’s Akhnaten drew protesters in San Francisco in 2016 objecting to a white countertenor cast as an Egyptian pharaoh. One of the most iconic musical narratives on black American culture, Porgy and Bess, was written by a white man. Puccini’s Turandot, revered for its musical splendor, is as rife with Orientalist tropes as Butterfly. 

Still, we’re in an era of colorblind casting, in which productions draw from a more diverse pool of operatic talent without assigning roles purely on the basis of race. Sopranos today are playing Cio-Cio with more dignity and less stereotyping. Newer stagings of Butterfly have succeeded in bringing out the opera’s core human themes — Lindy Hume’s minimalist production with the Welsh National Opera last fall is an example. So it’s reasonable to expect that TDO, an early adopter of colorblind casting, would contribute to the more aware collective understanding of Butterfly.

This production, however, falls just short on that count. Director Laurie Feldman’s production lacks the intrepid grit and daring that one would anticipate from a progressive company like TDO, and accomplishes little more than pretty music making. 

Friday night’s performance — the first of four kicking off TDO’s truncated new season — offered appealing performances and handsome staging that thankfully eschewed the pseudo-Asian face paint of bygone productions. But TDO’s Butterfly also demonstrated the limits of colorblind casting, which allows for new and effective mixtures of vocal colors and diversifies the performing ranks, but doesn’t all by itself dispel the harmful cultural connotations of some works. For that, a more comprehensive reimagining of the story may be called for. 

Latonia Moore, an African-American soprano playing the title character, heads up the cast with a robust voice and a resume marked by big Verdi roles. That history might explain why the first act — where Cio-Cio’s youthful innocence and fragility are supposed to be emphasized — felt unsettled. But Moore was commanding and, as an actress, intensely captivating throughout the subsequent acts, although her rich tone served the tragic, dramatic moments more aptly than the light, saccharine scenes. Despite some early pitch issues, she managed a thin, silvery gleam at the top of her register that punctuated the opera’s climactic plot points.

Evan LeRoy Johnson, a tenor making his TDO debut, was an equal foil as Pinkerton. Forceful projection knocked some of the higher end out of tune, but he conveyed a vocal aloofness befitting the character. Kirstin Chávez, a mezzo and Dallas native, was consistent as Suzuki, though often overshadowed vocally by the larger voices on stage. 

Baritone Michael Adams as Sharpless, the endearing American consul who serves as liaison between Cio-Cio and Pinkerton, was affectionate in interpretation and clear in tone. The opportunistic Goro — the town’s marriage broker — oozed a snake oil seller’s charm thanks to Martin Bakari’s slippery tenor. Both Adams and Bakari were making their TDO debuts with this performance. 

Chorus Master Alexander Rom’s preparation of the vocal ensemble was adequate, but disparities in vowel shaping and overall color were prevalent. Music director Emmanuel  Villaume, coming off a highly acclaimed Carmen in Munich, coaxed an agreeably plush and wavy sonority from the orchestra. The pit extended far into the house, leading to a dynamic imbalance between cast and orchestra, which might have accounted for some of the over-singing. 

With Michael Yeargan’s stylish panel-themed set and period designed costuming, the overall effect is attractive. One hopes that with TDO resuming work, future offerings will do more for the genre as opera seeks to evolve.

Madame Butterfly will be repeated 2 p.m. Sunday and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday. dallasopera.org

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