Hiromi Omura in Portland Operas Madama Butterfly.
Hiromi Omura in Portland Opera's Madama Butterfly. Cory Weaver/Portland Opera
The Portland Opera kicked off its 55th season Friday night with the premiere of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at the Keller Auditorium. The work, first premiered in 1904, is a tricky one to recreate respectfully in 2019—it’s an Italian opera about the transactional marriage between an American man and a 15-year-old Japanese girl. It also has a decidedly European outsider view of Japanese culture and customs, and often misrepresents both, not to mention that historically it’s often been cast with white performers playing the Japanese roles, something no longer acceptable to audiences today. Portland Opera’s production is a tasteful presentation that, while not confronting the opera’s thornier issues head-on, allows the beauty in the work to shine through by mitigating the more problematic elements of the piece.

Its greatest strength is the casting of the title role: Japanese soprano Hiromi Omura plays Madama Butterfly, also known as Cio-Cio-San; Omura has tackled the character 19 different times in productions around the world, but last night marked her debut on an American stage. The role requires youthful innocence in its first act and a deep sorrowfulness in the second, and Omura capably navigates both sides of the coin. In the wrong hands, Cio-Cio-San could seem a pathetic naïf: she’s essentially sold into marriage to a navy officer, Pinkerton, who abandons her after impregnating her, then returns three years later with a new American wife (his earlier marriage vows did not bind him once he left Japan). Nevertheless, Cio-Cio-San remains devoted to him, allowing herself to be destroyed by his indifference. Such is the gracefulness of Puccini’s music, expertly transmitted through Omura’s performance, that Cio-Cio-San’s tragic plight registers on the heartstrings rather than grinding on one’s patience.

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Pinkerton is played by Luis Chapa, who gives the character the appropriate levels of callowness and coarseness. And two supporting roles really shine: Troy Cook as Sharpless, the US consul, is the quiet conscience of the opera, foreseeing the destructive cold-heartedness of Pinkerton; and Nina Yoshida Nelsen as Suzuki, Cio-Cio-San’s servant, is a perfect counterpart to her mistress’ overwrought emotion, best exemplified in their flower duet in Act II.

The staging is straightforward, with all the action taking place in and outside the house Pinkerton has leased in Nagasaki; there are none of the more experimental techniques of, say, Anthony Minghella’s staging, which portrays Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton’s child as a puppet (a revival of that staging is currently at the Metropolitan Opera). In Portland Opera’s production, for example, the stage remains still for the lengthy instrumental intermezzo that separates the two halves of Act II. If the show lacks the radical kind of approach that could utterly reframe the work for our current climate, it does present a culturally sensitive, best-case scenario for how the opera should have been staged in its day. And that allows Puccini’s music, and the story of Cio-Cio-San, to be absorbed in full—no small thing.

Friday night’s performance featured conductor Nicholas Fox taking the place of George Manahan, who hopefully will recover from illness to finish the run as originally planned. Madama Butterfly continues this week with performances on Sunday, October 27, Thursday, October 31, and Saturday, November 2.

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