As Covid loosens its grip on the performing arts, some opera companies are engaging in more than art: they are trying to be better – more caring about staff, performers, repertoire and their communities. origin amid accounts about race and gender.
Even before 2020, there were heightened sensitivities around opera casting and re-evaluations of certain iconic works. The pandemic has only intensified these discussions. It was therefore a curious choice for the Dallas Opera to reopen its doors on Friday evening – among the last opera companies to do so – with the problematic of Puccini Lady Butterfly.
Based on the raucous curtain ovations inside the crowded Winspear Opera House, the TDO’s first outing after a two-year absence was a success. But staging Butterfly in 2022 isn’t just about appealing to entertainment-hungry opera-goers.
Puccini’s 1904 tragedy in three acts chronicles the short life of Cio-Cio-San, a poor teenage Japanese geisha. His obsession with the American promise of abundance sends him into the arms of the flippant Lieutenant Pinkerton, abandoning the traditions of his culture in favor of his own. Almost immediately, she is dumped – left alone with her servant, Suzuki, and soon after, a young son.
The lover Cio-Cio, nicknamed “Butterfly”, waits years for the return of the father, only to learn that he has long since moved on to an American wife. Humiliated, she abandons the child to the couple and commits suicide by hara-kiri in a sinister return to her cultural roots.
It’s an irresistibly dark and heartbreaking drama, peppered with clever moments of levity and appropriate humor. But, like much Western art focused on other cultures, stereotypes and misrepresentations abound. Orientalism was in vogue in Puccini’s Europe, as a means of exploring taboo subjects without offending popular sensibilities.
But there are also problems with more recent work. by Philip Glass Akhenaten drew protesters to San Francisco in 2016 opposing a white countertenor cast as an Egyptian pharaoh. One of the most iconic musical narratives of black American culture, Porgy and Bess, was written by a white man. Puccini Tourandot, revered for its musical splendour, is as rich in Orientalist tropes as Butterfly.
Yet we’re in an era of colorblind casting, in which productions draw from a more diverse pool of lyrical talent without assigning roles solely on the basis of race. Today’s sopranos play Cio-Cio with more dignity and less stereotypes. New stagings of Butterfly managed to bring out the fundamental human themes of opera – Lindy Hume’s minimalist production with Welsh National Opera last autumn is an example of this. It is therefore reasonable to expect that TDO, an early adopter of colorblind casting, will contribute to a more conscious collective understanding of Butterfly.
This production, however, falls just short of that number. Director Laurie Feldman’s production lacks the fearless grit and audacity one might expect from a progressive company like TDO, and accomplishes little more than pretty musical creations.
Friday night’s performance – the first of four kicking off TDO’s truncated new season – offered engaging performances and beautiful staging that thankfully avoided the pseudo-Asian facepaint of past productions. . But the TDOs Butterfly also demonstrated the limitations of color-blind casting, which allows for new and effective mixtures of vocal colors and diversifies the ranks of performers, but does not on its own dispel the harmful cultural connotations of certain works. For that, a more complete reimagining of history may be necessary.
Latonia Moore, an African-American soprano playing the title character, leads the cast with a robust voice and a resume marked by great Verdi roles. This story might explain why the first act – where Cio-Cio’s youthful innocence and fragility are meant to be emphasized – felt unsettled. But Moore was authoritative and, as an actress, intensely captivating throughout the following acts, although her rich tone served the tragic and dramatic moments better than the light and sweet scenes. Despite some tonal issues early on, she managed a thin silver glow at the top of her register that punctuated the high points of the opera’s plot.
Evan LeRoy Johnson, a tenor making his TDO debut, was an equal foil to Pinkerton. Powerful projection detuned part of the top end, but it conveyed vocal distance befitting the character. Kirstin Chávez, a mezzo and Dallas native, was consistent as Suzuki, though often vocally overshadowed by the bigger voices on stage.
Baritone Michael Adams as Sharpless, the endearing American consul who serves as a liaison between Cio-Cio and Pinkerton, was affectionate in his performance and clear in his tone. The opportunistic Goro – the city’s marriage agent – oozed the charm of a snake oil salesman thanks to Martin Bakari’s slippery tenor. Both Adams and Bakari were making their TDO debuts with this performance.
Preparation of the vocal ensemble by choir master Alexander Rom was adequate, but disparities in vowel formation and general color were widespread. Musical director Emmanuel Villaume, hailing from a highly acclaimed Carmen in Munich, coaxed a pleasingly mellow, undulating sound from the orchestra. The pit extended far into the house, causing a dynamic imbalance between the cast and orchestra, which could have explained some of the over-vocals.
With the stylish Michael Yeargan panel-themed set and period costumes, the overall effect is appealing. It is hoped that with the resumption of work from TDO, future offerings will do more for the genre as opera seeks to evolve.
Lady Butterfly will be repeated at 2 p.m. on Sunday and at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday and Saturday. dallasopera.org