Not your grandfather’s “Butterfly”—or Puccini’s— with In Series’ drastic revamp

Sun Sep 08, 2019 at 1:05 pm
Amanda Palmeiro (and Elizabeth Mondragon in background) in In Series’ adaptation of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” Photo: RX Loft

For all its soaring melodies, elements of the love story in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly wear much less well today than they did a century ago at the opera’s premiere. These days the marriage between an American naval officer and a Japanese teenage girl seems more akin to sexual tourism and exploitation than an exotic romance.

By adapting the verismo classic for the In Series, Timothy Nelson aims to rehabilitate the problematic aspects of this work. Whittled down to ninety minutes without an intermission–and a shortened title–Butterfly opened in a sleek production Saturday night at Source Theatre.

Nelson, who took over as artistic director of the In Series last year, opens his second season at the helm, which is the first entirely designed by him. The director made waves in the Baltimore area a decade ago as the head of American Opera Theater, specializing in this kind of eye-catching operatic reworking. Who could forget his drag-queen Carmen or his Acis and Galatea set in a three-ring circus?

The staging is simple but starkly effective. Hanging lengths of white paper recall both Japanese moving house screens and an antiseptic hospital setting (scenic design by Jonathan Dahm Robertson). Projections and shadows on the backdrop (lighting design by Marianne Meadows) added further tension, most strikingly during “Un bel dì vedremo,” bathed in gentle sea waves and mesmerizing silhouettes created by the hands of Suzuki.

Nelson has removed from the score and sung English translation most of the references to the nationality of Butterfly and Pinkerton, although the snippets of Japanese melody and The Star-Spangled Banner leave little doubt. There is no attempt to make Butterfly look Japanese or Pinkerton like a naval officer (costume design by Donna Breslin). The action shifts between the end of the opera and the earlier scenes, as if remembered by the distraught Butterfly, at one point clearly confined to a mental ward.

The musical and dramatic weight of this Butterfly is centered entirely on the plummy soprano of Amanda Palmeiro in the title role. Already a delightful discovery among last year’s class of Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists, the Memphis native rose to the challenge. With limpid tone that rarely overpowered the small theater, impeccable intonation, and admirable dramatic range, Palmeiro took Nelson’s concept to its limits, veering from exalted rapture to the edge of insanity.

After substantial cuts amounting to about an hour of music, only three other roles remained. Brian Arreola was mostly solid on the high notes as Pinkerton, with a few moments of uncertainty. Erik Grendahl applied his firm baritone to the role of Sharpless, like Pinkerton a character rendered less sympathetic by Nelson’s adaptation. In Series favorite Elizabeth Mondragon was a sympathetic, clear-voiced Suzuki.

The three of them provided a fair approximation of the chaotic wedding scene, standing in for the chorus of indignant family members. In the famous Humming Chorus, at Nelson’s request, the audience also supplied them with vocal backup on the floating melody. This memorable moment, almost a whole audience humming along in the way that one often wants to during an opera, underscored how familiar and beloved this opera is to audiences everywhere.

In lieu of an orchestra, pianist and composer Jessica Krash played a distillation of the score at the grand piano. Nelson reordered the score, and Krash took his ideas about opening up the sound of the piano, reworking and adding some new music. Effects included placing objects on the strings, as well as sometimes plucking, strumming, or striking the strings directly. Singers even came to the open cabinet of the piano to make a crashing sound on the instrument’s strings, part of a musical vocabulary that added to the sense of Butterfly’s mind unraveling.

The adaptation is certainly more taut and incisive than Puccini’s complete work, but it foundered on the altered ending. The entirety of Puccini’s musical fabric is woven to highlight the opera’s tragic conclusion. All that dramatic tension was subverted when Nelson brought back the music of the ensemble scene (“Ancora un passo”) from the first act, part of which is echoed in the love duet at the act’s conclusion. Instead of the tragic suicide, Butterfly floated toward the back wall and a different future.

Butterfly runs through September 22 with alternating casts, including Maribeth Diggle and Nelson Ebo in the roles of Butterfly and Pinkerton.  inseries.org; 202-204-7763


One Response to “Not your grandfather’s “Butterfly”—or Puccini’s— with In Series’ drastic revamp”

  1. Posted Sep 17, 2019 at 2:35 am by Robert Darling

    A wonderful evacuation of the performance. How bold and brave and present this production — opera moves as a presence in our times. Thanks for the insights.

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