Madame Butterfly at Opera Philadelphia


By: - May 01, 2024

Opera Philadelphia is bringing us Madame Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini with a twist one imagines the composer would have liked. The title role of Cio-Cio-San is a two-hander, performed both by soprano Karen Chia-Ling Ho and a puppet created by Hua Hua Zhang.  In Anthony Minghella’s production, the puppet is Cio-Cio-San’s son. Now she is the exterior, public version of Butterfly, the one Lieutenant Pinkerton falls for and seduces and abandons. The director Ethan Heard and designer Yuki Izumihara came up with this notion.

When he started work on the David Belasco version of a true story, Puccini wanted authenticity.  He met with the wife of the Japanese Ambassador to Italy and the Japanese actress Sadayakko during her Italian tour.  He referenced Japanese music (and some Chinese tunes, for which the Japanese criticized him). Bunraku puppetry, used in Philadelphia, developed in Japan centuries ago.  It was often used for lovers’ suicide scenes, the familiar conclusion of Butterfly which Philadelphia gives a satisfyingly surprise interpretation.

Americans loved the Japanese soprano Tamaki Miura, "the real thing”, a cute, quaint, little doll wound up to sing and act for a few hours and then put back on the shelf. She often performed Butterfly in America. Although for centuries the most lucrative job for women throughout the world has been the sale of their bodies, it offends today, when women have so many more opportunities for advancement. (Butterfly believed that her marriage was real, not a transaction. )

Ms. Chia-Ling Ho as Cio-Cio-San will distance herself from this public presentation society has pinned on her (the puppet) as the opera progresses. The puppet maintains consistently formal behavior. Yet the search for the absent Pinkerton is one of her many arresting gestures. One of the most erotic scenes in opera is a bit odd with Pinkerton seducing the puppet.  

While Ms. Ching-Ling Ho has the triple job of singing, acting and manipulating the puppet at times, it is her singing that benefits. Ms. Ching-Ling Ho’s voice is rich and large. She controls her dynamics on a dime. The deep emotional reservoir is felt as one listens.  

Singing is first-rate throughout.  Anthony Ciaramitaro brought a perfect helden edge to the role of Lt. Pinkerton.  Anthony Clark Evans as Sharpless, the American Consul, has a rich baritone and the duets with Pinkerton seem perfectly matched.  Kristen Choi is Suzuki, Butterfly’s maid. She shows, as she did in Opera Philadelphia's production, The Raven, a commitment to the marriage of drama and voice.  Corrado Rovaris conducted the ravishing score with attention to the many special moments. The chorus in boxes often gave the music a surround-sound effect. 

The set is a masterful study in the use of scale.  The house that Pinkerton bought to use for 999 years is tiny and sits on a table.  On large screens of varying dimensions in the rear of the stage parasols, fans and cherry blossoms float by. And of course butterflies, often one large image unfolding.  The images complement and enlarge the story, but they are never dominant, no matter the scale.  They are in service of the opera. In this production, the music is front and forward, in the singing and orchestra. This a relief when dominant sets often obscure the real purpose of opera.

The Academy of Music opera house opened just before the Civil War and is an elegant setting for this very modern take on a great opera. Leave it to Opera Philadelphia, as David Devan ends his term and Anthony Roth Costanzo takes the helm, to give us a wonderful production of one of the most popular operas.