Madama Butterfly Comes to the Washington National Opera


Spring is on its way to Washington. And if we need a sign of spring—and a beautiful, highly anticipated one—we’ve got the Washington National Opera’s “Madame Butterfly.” Puccini’s enduring, tragic opera, although critically blasted in its first version over a century ago, has proven to be perhaps the one opera in the canon that is loved even by those who say they hate opera.

“Madame Butterfly” kicks off the second half of the WNO season Saturday, February 26 and runs for a phenomenal 14 performances through March 19, with two world-renowned sopranos sharing the role.

“I would guess that maybe along with ‘Carmen,’ ‘Tosca’ and ‘La Boheme,’ ‘Madame Butterfly’ is probably one of the most recognizable and beloved operas, and probably lands on more schedules than any other,” said Christina Scheppelman, Director of Artistic Operations at the WNO. “Certainly it’s popular. That’s why there are more performance dates. But it’s a great work of art. Let’s face it, it has brilliant, gorgeous music, and like the others mentioned, they’re tragic, romantic stories. If you don’t cry in ‘Madame Butterfly,’ you’re perhaps not quite human.”

“Madame Butterfly” kicks off the latter part of a season as part of a trio of high-profile operas and other events, and it’s bound to seem just a little bittersweet.

On July 1, the WNO will enter into a contract with the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts which will affiliate the two organizations, a move that will strengthen the missions of both organizations, according to officials from both groups, and will certainly be a boon for the WNO in terms of financial stability. But it remains a major change in a time of major changes at the WNO, after the announced departure of Artistic Director and renowned singer Placido Domingo back in September. Domingo has been the face of the WNO since becoming Artistic Director in 1996, as well as serving as General Director for the last eight years.

In addition to “Madame Butterfly,” two other operas are on the spring menu, and of particular interest will be “Iphigenie en Tauride,” by Christoph Willibald Gluck, a company premiere for the WNO. This show also offers a chance to see and hear Domingo as the great performer that he is, in the starring role as Oreste.

“This is certainly a highlight of the season,” Scheppelman said. “It’s always a major occasion when Domingo performs here, and I’m sure that it won’t be the last time.”

“Iphigenie en Tauride” is rooted in Greek tragedy. It is the story of Iphigenie, the high priestess of Taurus, as she is faced with impossible choices—often the case in Greek tragedy and opera (see “Madame Butterfly”). But the opera, with its soaring, emotional music has enjoyed a renaissance of late, and the WNO is catching the crest of its wave.

“Iphigenie en Tauride” will have eight performances, May 6 – 28, and “Don Pasquale,” the great comic opera by Donizetti, will be performed for eight performances, from May 13 – 17, with James Morris in the title role.

Thereis also the Placido Domingo Celebrity Series, in which contemporary and rising opera stars get a chance to perform solo. It kicks off this weekend on Sunday with tenor Juan Diego Florez and continues with the great Welsh Bass Baritone Bryn Terfel, conducted by Domingo on March 12.

But it’s “Madame Butterfly” that will be the chief attraction in town, which is expected to get big audiences with its tragic, super-romantic theme, its heart-breaking arias, its exotic and historic setting.

Here’s the scoop, in case you don’t know: a handsome 19th century American naval officer named Pinkerton, hungry for a variety of romantic experience, lands in Nagasaki and meets Cio-Cio-San—the butterfly—a young, naïve teenage Geisha. He makes her his temporary wife. She is rapturously in love—always a perfect state of mind for singing arias—but Pinkerton, a cad of the highest order, departs with promises to return, leaving Butterfly behind, with a child. Eventually, he does return, but with an American wife. The climax is about as sad as things can get, and therefore musically and emotionally perfect for audiences.

Two of today’s most acclaimed sopranos, Ana Maria Martinez and Catherine Nagelstadt, will be performing the title role during the course of the WNO run, each with special qualities and gifts. This is Naglestad’s debut as Butterfly, but she is a veteran of Puccini’s operas, and it’s the second time around for Martinez.

Tenors Alexey Dolgov and Thiago Arancam share the role of Pinkerton. Domingo and Philippe Auguin will conduct, and Ron Daniels directs.

Scheppelman has seen numerous performances of “Butterfly” over the years, not counting rehearsals.

“It never gets old. It never fails to move the heart,” she said. “Certainly, companies inevitably will put it on their schedules. It’s a great audience draw, and it’s a demanding opera for the performers.”

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