Butterfly Soars

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Butterfly (Karen Chia-ling Ho, center) is a nightclub entertainer in BLO's new production of "Madama Butterfly at5 Emerson Colonial Theatre."(Photo: Ken Yotsukura)
Butterfly (Karen Chia-ling Ho, center) is a nightclub entertainer in BLO's new production of "Madama Butterfly at5 Emerson Colonial Theatre."(Photo: Ken Yotsukura)

Madama Butterfly, a new BLO production, Boston Lyric Opera, Emerson Colonial Theatre, through September 24. Running time: two hours, 45 minutes (including an intermission after the first act). www.blo.org

Gifted directors often reimagine classics—whether in theater or opera—and Phil Chan is doing the same for "Madama Butterfly," now in a powerfully haunting Boston Lyric Opera staging at Emerson Colonial Theatre. Describing the company season opener in his playbill note, stage director Chan explains, "Working alongside the brilliant Nina Yoshida Nelsen (BLO artistic advisor and dramaturg), we grafted Puccini's score onto a new setting but consistent story that re-centers an Asian-American experience in the 1940's." So-called 'purists' notwithstanding, Puccini's masterful score (1904, revised by the composer in 1907) soars in the gloriously sung and acted BLO production. Just as importantly, the envelope-pushing current effort does full justice to Asian Americans as well as opera lovers.

Tellingly, Japanese-American mezzo-soprano Nelsen (who has often sung the role of maid-confidante Suzuki in the opera) is the descendant of grandparents who experienced the indignities of the Poston, Arizona incarceration camp during World War II. In the BLO staging, that incarceration camp—a fittingly stark construct from inspired designer Yu Shibagaki—takes over the Colonial stage for the 1944 second and third acts. Archival images--some found in the very informative playbill—give historical context as well as true dignity to the more than 100,000 incarcerated Japanese —Americans. For much of the contrastingly colorful Club Shangri-La setting of the 1941 first act, the title singer Cio-Cio-San—eye-catchingly attired by costume designer Sara Ryung Clement—pretends to be Chinese to avoid discrimination for being Japanese. Once her irate Uncle Bonzo reveals her true identity and curses her, falling in love with navy lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton will not keep her from being incarcerated after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Butterfly takes on full tragic dimension as their child Dolore contracts tuberculosis and she holds on to the hope that Pinkerton will return to help him. When the now married Pinkerton returns with his wife Kate, that hope is dashed at the heart-breaking close.

Under the strong conducting of BLO music director David Angus, Karen Chia-Ling Ho richly captures the hopes, dreams and growing despair of Butterfly. She delivers her role's grand arias—particularly the famed "Un bel di, vederemo"—with fully sustained high notes and dramatic intensity. Her scenes with Dominick Chenes— properly dashing and conflicted as Pinkerton—possess superb duets, convincing chemistry and moving conflict.

Alice Chung is a touching standout as caring and supportive Suzuki. Chung and Ho have moments of pure poetry celebrating the joy of springtime and decorating with a rainbow of paper flowers in the flowerless camp. Troy Cook captures American consul Sharpless' concern for Butterfly and her son. There are moments, though, when this robust voiced-singer could do with more projection. Rodell Rosel has all of Goro's impresario expansion in the early going as Butterfly sings with an equally snappy entourage. Some musical theater buffs may find his dynamic efforts bringing together navy men and dancers calling to mind the over-the top efforts of the Engineer in the admittedly seedy showplaces of "Miss Saigon" (a work inspired by the opera). Hyungjin Son makes the most of Uncle Bonzo's fury. Neko Umphenour has the right vulnerability as Dolore. With Michael Sakimoto's stylish choreography, Cassie Wang proves a graceful solo dancer.

Chang closes his playbill notes with the hope that audiences will find themselves "swept into the story of a mother's unbreakable love." The BLO's sublime "Madama Butterfly" honors the magic of Puccini's music and brings real authenticity to the opera's iconic Japanese mother.