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February 28, 2011

Washington National Opera delivers affecting production of 'Madama Butterfly'

Opera is the sum of many parts. A performance of an opera is too, which is why careful assembly is required.

Too often, one or more of the components comes up short -- the singing or the characterizations, the stage direction or maybe the scenery, the conducting or the orchestral playing.

The result is that you might start to feel you'll never find a fully satisfying confluence of compellingly realized ingredients.

Well, say hello to a fully satisfying confluence of compellingly realized ingredients: Washington National Opera's production of "Madama Butterfly."

I'm not saying its perfect -- is any production perfect? -- or that it'll erase all memories of previously indelible performances you've known, live or on recording. Believe me, I haven't gone all soft in the head. But on Saturday night at the Kennedy Center, the company delivered a cohesive result from consistently strong assets -- expressive vocal power, affectingly detailed acting, abundant visual interest, deeply involved conducting, and a lot of lush sounds from the orchestra.

Sure, you can tick off the occasional note that wasn't firmly centered or didn't have enough stamina, not to mention the occasional slip of coordination between stage and pit (or inside the pit).

But throughout the evening, I was repeatedly struck by

the intense degree of good old-fashioned operatic passion in the house, and how often passages in the work took on fresh urgency or poignancy or both -- a rapt "Un bel di" from Catherine Naglestad in the title role, for example; the naked honesty she revealed the Act 2 scene with the Michael Chioldi, a most sympathetic, if soft-toned, Sharpless; the cries of the sailors in the distance during the orchestral prelude to the last act (I don't think I've ever heard that passage sound so haunting, not just atmospheric, in a live performance).

Naglestad produced neither the creamiest nor the most penetrating of tones, but the voice met the challenges with wonderful nuance. She articulated every word with care, shaped every phrase with a refined sense of line.

The soprano also astutely revealed, as effectively as the sliding paper walls of Michael Yeargan's sleekly atmospheric set, the layer's beneath Butterfly's personality -- from cute, coy, calculating child-bride to hopeful, fearful, stoic, proud woman. A knowing, touching performance.

Alexey Dolgov's Pinkerton was a cad, but with a faint heartbeat detectable from the start, which made the remorse at the end palatable. The tenor's gentle shading of the line "Bimba, bimba, non piangere" was a highlight of the evening. Margaret Thompson was a subtle, eloquent Suzuki. Robert Baker's Goro was colorfully, fully sung. The rest of the soloists proved admirable. The chorus, prepared by Steven Gathman, sang beautifully.

Philippe Auguin conducted with a deep appreciation for the ebb and flow of the music and, especially, its climactic peaks.

Musically speaking, this really was a gorgeous performance. Theatrically speaking, it had much going for it, too. Even within the large dimensions of Yeargan's scenic concept -- no quaint little cottage for Butterfly, but a stage-wide expanse -- director Ron Daniels kept everything on an intimate level and drew unaffected performances from the singers.

The look (Yeargan designed the costumes as well) was traditional, without turning postcard-ish. Several stage images, aided by Stephen Strawbridge's lighting design, left lasting impressions, among them the nocturnal close of Act 1 and the looming naval vessel and fluttering blossoms in Act 2.

All in all, a most involving night at the opera.

Several performances, some with alternate principals, remain through March 19. WNO general director Placido Domingo will conduct on four occasions. Members of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program will move front and center for their own performance on March 15.


Posted by Tim Smith at 10:48 AM | | Comments (1)
Categories: Clef Notes, Opera


Wonderful to read of this. You 'took me there' with your description. Thank you.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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