Lyric Opera Presents MADAMA BUTTERFLY Review – Emotion-Filled, Minimalist Stagecraft

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Brian Jagde
Brian Jagde, Ana María Martínez
Rodell Rosel, Deborah Nansteel
Ana María Martínez
Anthony Clark Evans, Graham Macfarlane, Ana María Martínez
Brian Jagde, Ana María Martínez, Graham Macfarlane

It seemed humorous as the audience booed tenor Brian Jagde (who had performed the role of Lt. B. F. Pinkerton) as he took his bow, but perhaps understandable. It seemed to not only be an opera tradition at work, but also a much needed pressure relief valve for all overcome with emotion.

Pinkerton is the cad who double-crossed lovely Butterfly (Soprano Ana María Martínez)— an event with tragic sequelae foreshadowed throughout the opera. She gave him her heart—freely and innocently, as only a 15 year-old can do. He took her heart shamelessly, knowing his marriage bonds were only as real as the cancel-at-anytime lease he signed for their Nagasaki home.

Composer Puccini announces this brash American Pinkerton, and surrounds others’ references to him, with pomp filled phrases of the American National Anthem. Perhaps Puccini was thinking of the then Bully-Bully American brand manager Teddy Roosevelt. How wonderful to note, however, that the librettists (Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illiaca) also let us peek below Pinkerton’s bravado façade, even from the gitgo, when his friend, Sharpless ,the Consul (on this night sung by last minute substitute Ricardo José Rivera) remarks to Pinkerton that he seems to have a touch of nervousness before his wedding day.

Flawless Performances—Stellar Stagecraft in the Best Lyric Opera Traditions

In this production, even the physical stature of Pinkerton relative to diminutive Butterfly telegraphs that he’s the oversized brute, while she is the fragile butterfly, who at one point worries presciently that her American husband might like to kill her and pin her to a board. How they are placed on the stage (Directors: Michael Grandage, original; Louisa Muller, revival) and their costumes (Costume Design: Christopher Oram) seem to emphasize this all the more. More, it allows the lush music and flawless performances to stand out and be the main show, in this writer’s view.

There is an abundance of acting by gesture—by chorus, by Butterfly, by Suzuki (Butterfly’s devoted servant performed by Deborah Nansteel), by Prince Yamadori (Butterfly’s would-be suitor, played in this performance by Christopher Kenney) and by Goro (the rental agent and marriage broker performed by tenor Rodell Rosel). Fellow lovers of physical theater will likely also admire how efficiently these movements, often minimal, are used to help tell the tale (Movement Director: August Tye).

It’s also the sparse minimalist set (Set Design: Christopher Oram)— so in keeping with Japanese aesthetics—that went a long way in transporting us to this East-Meets-West story. The silhouette of bonsai-like tree limbs frame the opening scenes. After intermission, it was as though we all had grown dimming cataracts robbing the set of light, preparing us to take in abandoned Butterfly’s overwhelming sorrow.

SPOILER ALERT! The Lighting Designers’ touch of adding a backdrop of what might be a moon, or sun, or subliminal reference to the Japanese flag, is breathtaking, in this writer’s view (Lighting Design: Neil Austin, Original; Chris Maravich, Revival). It comes into sharper focus as the orchestra plays an overture marking the painful passage of time, as Butterfly awaits no-show Pinkerton. Later, this sun fades, as Butterfly sings of how she has no more sunshine.

Though the audience seemed to include more young people than your average Lyric event, it seems safe to assume that the majority in the crowd knew the story and music very well, which includes some of the most famous arias in the opera repertoire.   We may have seen Madama Butterfly before, but this production is one that likely left others, like this writer, simultaneously electrified—as Puccini reportedly was when he first saw a theatrical play with this story—and verklempt. How inconsequential the 11th hour substitution of four in the cast announced before curtain rise seemed to be. (See below)

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Madama Butterfly

Giacomo Puccini | Opera in three acts in Italian Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, after the short story by John Luther Long and the play by David Belasco


Lt. B. F. Pinkerton Brian Jagde Brandon Jovanovich (March 4, 7)
Goro Rodell Rosel
Suzuki Deborah Nansteel
Sharpless Anthony Clark Evans
Cio-Cio-San (Madama Butterfly) Ana María Martínez Lianna Haroutounian+(March 4, 7)
Imperial Commissioner Anthony Reed
Official Registrar Christopher Kenney
The Bonze David Weigel
Prince Yamadori Ricardo José Rivera
Sorrow, Cio-Cio-San’s child Graham Macfarlane+
Kate Pinkerton Kayleigh Decker

Special note-- substitutions due to illness in February 9, 2020 performance:

Singing the role of Sharpless -Ricardo José Rivera, replacing Anthony Clark Evans.

Singing the role of the Imperial Commissioner - Ronald Watkins, replacing Christopher Kenney.

Singing the role of Yamadori - Christopher Kenney, replacing Ricardo José Rivera.

And singing the role of Kate Pinkerton - Marianna Kulikova, replacing Kayleigh Decker.

Conductor Henrik Nánási
Original Director Michael Grandage
Revival Director Louisa Muller
Set and Costume Designer Christopher Oram
Original Lighting Designer Neil Austin
Revival Lighting Designer Chris Maravich
Chorus Master Michael Black
Movement Director August Tye
Wigmaster and
Makeup Designer Sarah Hatten
Assistant Director Jordan Lee Braun
Stage Manager Rachel A. Tobias
Stage Band Conductor Francesco Milioto
Musical Preparation William C. Billingham
Noah Lindquist Matthew Piatt

Projected English Titles Colin Ure


Thru March 8, 2020


Lyric Opera House
20 N Wacker Dr.



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Photos by Todd Rosenberg

Note: Picture This Post reviews are excerpted by Theatre in Chicago

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Amy Munice

About the Author: Amy Munice

Amy Munice is Editor-in-Chief and Co-Publisher of Picture This Post. She covers books, dance, film, theater, music, museums and travel. Prior to founding Picture This Post, Amy was a freelance writer and global PR specialist for decades—writing and ghostwriting thousands of articles and promotional communications on a wide range of technical and not-so-technical topics.

Amy hopes the magazine’s click-a-picture-to-read-a-vivid-account format will nourish those ever hunting for under-discovered cultural treasures. She especially loves writing articles about travel finds, showcasing works by cultural warriors of a progressive bent, and shining a light on bold, creative strokes by fledgling artists in all genres.


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