Standing ovation as 'Madame Butterfly' soars

Posted at 06/23/2012 12:29 PM | Updated as of 06/25/2012 5:36 PM

Japanese soprano Mako NIshimoto shines as Cio-Cio San in "Madame Butterfly" at the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

MANILA, Philippines -- A local production of the popular opera "Madame Butterfly" featuring international artists received three curtain calls and ecsatic applause during its opening night at the Cultural Center of the Philippines Main Theater on Friday.

The loudest applause was reserved for guest Japanese soprano Mako Nishimoto in the title role as a Japanese geisha who marries a visiting American lieutenant only to be left behind after his ship sails back to the United States.

Nishimoto had the well-heeled audience enthralled throughout the play. Her poignant rendition of the opera's most famous aria, "Un Bel Di" near the beginning of Act 2, with her expressive voice and acting clearly suggesting Butterfly's sincere hopes and naive defiance, met with spontaneous applause and shouts of "Brava."

The production of the popular Giacomo Puccini opera from the local company Music Artes, Inc. also featured the dashing Mexican tenor Dante Alcala as Butterfly's husband Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton and Singaporean Lim Yau conducting the Philippine Philharmonic Orchestra.

The cast of Filipino opera artists is led by veteran soprano Camille Lopez-Molina as Butterfly's servant Suzuki and US-based baritone Andrew Fernando as Pinkerton's friend Sharpless, their robust and controlled voices in full display, particularly in the riveting Act 3.

Shadow of war

The last time "Madame Butterfly" was performed in a major production was 18 years ago, also at the CCP featuring sets by National Artist for Architecture Leandro Locsin.

That staging played more closely to the original material, which made its worldwide debut back in 1904 at the La Scala in Milan, Italy.

This 2012 production, directed by internationally renowned director Anton Juan, offers an entirely new take on the opera classic, taking the play's setting to the years before the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the opera's original setting.

Juan's version of "Madame Butterfly" unfolds as a memory for Cio-Cio San and Pinkerton's child, who opens the play amid a video projection of the atomic bombing. It also ends with the boy, haunted by dreams, under a mobile of Japanese origami.

Anton's bravest addition to the opera is a dream sequence bridging Acts 2 and 3 as Cio-Cio waits through the night for Pinkerton's return. In the original, this bridge was done with the slow and beautiful wordless "The Humming Chorus" as night turns into day.

Anton starts this sequence off without music as dancers -- who throughout the opera act as sliding shoji screens -- flip their costumes designed by Leeroy New, best known for co-creating a dress worn by Lady Gaga in a music video, to reveal short LED fibers as they make their way across the main set of a grand staircase like radioactive blobs. The chorus then appears, also wearing costumes with LED strips, while Cio-Cio San's "ghost" performs a contemporary dance in what can only be described as a post-nuclear apocalypse number, ending with Cio-Cio San being engulfed by these mutant creatures.

Cinematic references

Anton strips the opera of its exotic Japanese idyll and offers a blunt, bleak vision such that even the origami-inspired set pieces -- the clouds, the cherry blossom tree -- have a cold feel as they seemed fashioned from metal pipes.

There is also a raw sensuality in the chemistry between Pinkerton and Butterfly, reminiscent of "A Streetcar Named Desire." The long duet that ends Act 1 plays like a long seduction, with Pinkerton eager to bed his 15-year-old bride, as he strips off his Navy white jacket and shirt, until Butterfly surrenders to his advances.

For the hara-kiri finale, again there is a cinematic feel (think "Battleship Potemkin" meets "Fatal Attraction") as butterfly ascends to the top of the stairs then kills herself. A red line slashes through the black video screen and red lights designed by John Batalla cleverly spreads down the steps, with the faint screams of PInkerton heard from off stage.

Yet despite the arresting direction, Nishimoto remains front and center with her piercing voice as Cio-Cio San desperately holds on to her shattered American dream.

She -- and the entire production -- definitely deserve the extended ovation at the end.

"Madame Butterfly" will have one more performance tonight, Saturday, at 8 p.m. at the CCP.