- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 5, 2006

The Washington National Opera’s production of Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” which opened Saturday evening at the Kennedy Center Opera House, marks the return of the stunningly successful concept of the work presented here in 2001 — the Washington debut of minimalistic yet visually opulent sets designed by Boris F. Kudlicka for Warsaw’s Teatr Wielki-National Opera. Then as now, the WNO’s realization was helmed by Polish film director Mariusz Trelinski.

This Polish-born production unfolds from a deceptively simple notion, re-imagining “Butterfly” as Japanese kabuki theater. The results are sometimes startling, but add to the poignancy and majesty of this beloved opera while freeing the story from excess theatrical baggage.

The WNO’s 2006 production, which alternates two principal casts, ran into a few bumps before Saturday’s opening curtain. It seems that the originally scheduled opening night soprano, Hui He, had double-booked herself this month, and broke her WNO contract in order to sing “Aida” at La Scala. WNO’s general director Placido Domingo (who is conducting most of these “Butterfly” performances) was able to sign soprano Tatiana Borodina, who had sung in the original Warsaw production, in Miss Hui’s stead. But Miss Borodina herself was indisposed on Saturday evening, leaving opening night duties to Xiu Wei Sun, who was already scheduled to sing in the alternating cast.

Fortunately, this young Chinese soprano, a winner of Mr. Domingo’s Operalia competition, has sung the title role many times, and the opening night audience was treated to a superbly acted and sung performance by this diminutive rising star. Her Cio-Cio San was the very embodiment of the naive teenaged geisha who thinks her sham marriage to a cynical American officer, B.F. Pinkerton, is for real.

Miss Xiu’s lush, full voice and crystalline high notes added depth and authority to her rendition of the opera’s signature Act II aria, “Un bel di” (“One fine day”).

As Pinkerton, the original Ugly American, Mexican tenor Arturo Chacon-Cruz somehow managed to create a bit of sympathy for this loutish character who only realizes at the very end what a horrendous mistake he has made. Mr. Chacon-Cruz’s voice was clear and well-supported, his character was crisply-projected, and his diction was superb.

As Sharpless, the beleaguered American consul who warns Pinkerton of his impending folly, Italian baritone Luca Salsi was dignified but not overbearing, accepting his fate as an unfortunate messenger while doing his best to alter the outcome. Mr. Salsi’s sympathetic portrayal and rich baritone instrument won well-deserved plaudits from the capacity audience.

Reprising his 2001 appearance here in the role of Goro, the devious marriage broker, hyperactive tenor Anthony Laciura provided some welcome comic relief. Bass Ricardo Lugo was appropriately ominous in his brief, highly theatrical turn as the Bonze. And mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Batton in the smaller role of the servant Suzuki, brought great strength and conviction to the moving ensemble work in Act III.

Maestro Domingo himself was at the podium, and his conducting was highly effective in achieving an excellent blend of sound and tempo from his large cast of instrumentalists and singers. Under his superb direction, the difficult but gorgeous “Humming Chorus” that concludes Act II was as wistful, sad, and touching as we have ever heard it performed.

***1/2

WHO: The Washington Opera

WHAT: Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”

WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House

WHEN: Tomorrow, Thursday and Nov. 15-17 at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday and Nov. 13 at 7 p.m. Matinees are Sunday and Nov. 19 at 2 p.m.

TICKETS: $45 to $250

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