Pérez takes flight in HGO’s “Butterfly”

Sat Jan 27, 2024 at 1:51 pm
By Steven Brown
Yongzhao Yu as Pinkerton and Ailyn Pérez in the title role of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at Houston Grand Opera. Photo: Michael Bishop

Houston Grand Opera’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly offers one of the most arresting portrayals the company has presented in recent years.

In the opening night performance Friday at Wortham Theater Center, Soprano Ailyn Pérez wholly immersed herself in Butterfly’s evolution from the child bride, who is bewitched into an illusion of love and marriage, to tragic heroine. 

Pérez’s first entrance, with her voice vaulting above those of Butterfly’s attendants, offered a glimpse of the generous lyricism the soprano  would offer as the storyline—and Puccini’s melodies—intensified.

But when Butterfly came face-to-face with the sailor Pinkerton, Pérez exuded girlishness. Her voice was delicate and almost wispy; she often cast her eyes downward, putting across Butterfly’s shyness and deference. In the love duet, as Puccini’s melodies blossomed, Perez’s singing grew flowing and ardent—rich in its middle range, focused and potent at the top. 

Butterfly’s  “Un bel di” became the embodiment of her futile hopes for a reunion. Pérez sang it as if Butterfly were retreating into a dream. Her voice grew more and more hushed and rapt as Butterfly envisioned Pinkerton’s return, and after the aria’s climactic surge, Pérez took the last note down to a pianissimo and held it—like Butterfly clinging to her fantasy. After Butterfly surrendered her child and took control of her fate, Pérez gave her the resolve and dignity of a tragic figure.

Butterfly’s servant, Suzuki, gained a stature of her own, thanks to Sun-Ly Pierce. The mezzo-soprano sang with a poise that revealed Suzuki’s devotion, as well as a vibrancy that made her outcries telling. Pierce cut a wily figure, too. Her Suzuki looked on with alarm at Pinkerton’s boldness in Act 1, and she eagerly throttled the marriage broker Goro when he mocked Butterfly.

Pérez had a worthy partner in tenor Yongzhao Yu, who played Pinkerton. Yu’s singing wasn’t especially smooth, but his voice boasted resonance and red-bloodedness galore. It filled out Puccini’s big tunes in grand style. Yu’s smiling demeanor gave Pinkerton a touch of geniality during the wedding scene. And his voice’s impact put across Pinkerton’s regret and desperation as the result of his actions became clear.

Bass-baritone Michael Sumuel brought deep, sturdy tones and a dignified bearing to the role of the consul Sharpless, who tries to help Butterfly see the truth before it’s too late.

Sometimes his singing was a bit too stiff to capture the consul’s kindliness, but when Sharpless finally called out Pinkerton’s callousness, Sumuel gave his outburst more bite than many baritones do. He also established a sturdy foundation for Act 3’s heavy-hearted trio with Pinkerton and Suzuki.

The marriage broker Goro bustled around untiringly, animated by tenor Rodell Rosel’s pungent voice and nimble feet. Bass William Guanbo Su blustered vigorously in the Bonze’s denunciations of Butterfly, and bass-baritone Andre Courville made a duly dignified turn as Yamadori, Butterfly’s rejected suitor.

Conductor Patrick Summers and the HGO Orchestra and Chorus relished Puccini’s lyricism and tone-painting, from the opening’s contrapuntal scramble to the Humming Chorus’ weightlessness and the climax’s starkness. Summers was especially adroit in dovetailing the orchestra with Pérez as she took “Un bel di” into its dream world.

Michael Grandage’s production, revived here by director Jordan Lee Braun, eschews the cultural cliches of some productions to focus on the characters as Puccini’s score evokes them. Christopher Oram’s stylized set is dominated by a single sliding panel to suggest Butterfly’s house and a curving ramp to represent the hillside. All that helps keep the principals in high relief.

Madama Butterfly runs through February11. houstongrandopera.org

One Response to “Pérez takes flight in HGO’s “Butterfly””

  1. Posted Jan 28, 2024 at 5:35 pm by John Epstein

    Wow! What a great review! Steve Brown captures the excitement of a thoroughly great HGO offering. Congrats to Maestro Summers and everyone involved.

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