[All photos courtesy of Houston Ballet. Photographer: Amitava Sarkar]
Whenever I am privileged to report on an important ballet performance, I am reminded of a tender lyric in the legendary Broadway musical, A Chorus Line. It reminds us that “Everything is beautiful, ‘At the Ballet.’” In a free performance sponsored by the Wortham Foundation, last weekend’s exquisite Houston Ballet production of MADAME BUTTERFLY at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion was beautiful indeed. But behind that beauty lay the ultimate tragedy of composer Giacomo Puccini’s heart-wrenching tale for his famed opera of the same name. Here, in choreographer Stanton Welch’s stunning production, that rich Puccini score (arrangement by John Lanchbery) is magnificently performed by the Houston Ballet Orchestra, with Ermanno Florio conducting.
The tragic plot is set on a hilltop in 19th century Japan that overlooks the harbor below. Lt. Pinkerton (Linnar Looris) is a U.S. Naval officer stationed there. He is about to take as his bride 15-year old Cio-Cio San, a Japanese geisha known as Madame Butterfly (Melody Mennite). The wedding is being arranged by the local marriage broker, Goro (Oliver Halkowich). The dark set (scenic & costume designer, Peter Farmer) hints of the dark events that loom ahead, while elegantly depicting the traditional Japanese house where Pinkerton is to live with his new wife. Mr. Farmer’s beautiful period costume designs are elegant as well. While the minimal and colorless set design seemed a bit ominous at first, it took on the antique look of a rich bronze etching as the dancing proceeded to decorate each scene. On a soft spring evening in Texas, the sublime and sweeping Puccini score was a heavenly accent to the welcoming fan dance of the geishas in a rising mist. The bride-to-be arrives, and her delicate beauty is quickly surrounded by the gentle undulations of the ensemble dancing. There were acrobatic leaps during the dramatic marriage contract ceremony, and joyous dancing from the bride following the contract signing. The hypnotic grace of that joy is short-lived with the fierce arrival of Butterfly’s uncle, The Bonze (Brian Waldrep). He is in a rage having learned that Butterfly, in an attempt to please her new husband, has abandoned the faith of their ancestors and converted to Christianity. The scene is fraught with tension, but things calm down during Mr. Looris’ graceful performance of Pinkerton’s solo. Soon, the blissful bride and groom share their first shy embraces, beautifully accompanied by the orchestral rapture of the Houston Ballet Orchestra as they dance an erotic and wonderfully extended pas de deux on their sensual first night in the new home.
As Act Two opens, several years have passed during Pinkerton’s visit to America. There, ignoring the warnings of his friend, Sharpless, the U.S. Consul to Nagasaki (Jared Matthews), the unfaithful lieutenant has married his American fiancée, Kate (Katherine Precourt). Meanwhile, there is an air of excited anticipation as his unsuspecting Butterfly awaits his return to Japan. Charming dances that follow seem to match the golden glow of the Japanese lanterns that light the scene (Lighting Designer, Lisa J. Pinkham). Butterfly’s joy at his return floats her heavenward amid the glorious and whirling lifts executed by the dancers. Even the well-staged and misty arrival of Pinkerton’s ship in the harbor seems to float in a magical world of its own. Alas, troubling revelations abound as it is learned that Pinkerton has taken a new wife, while devoted Butterfly was back in Japan raising their young son. Compounding these sad circumstances, Pinkerton and Kate have come seeking adoption of the boy for themselves. It is all too much for Butterfly. The poignant final embrace of her son before surrendering him is a heartbreaking moment that pales in comparison to her tragic suicide moments later when she uses the same ceremonial sword with which her father had taken his own life years before. Thank goodness for the athletic and visual joys of the corps de ballet, and the musical delights of Puccini from this superb orchestra. Barring all of that, this tragic tale would have been too much to bear.