Yasko Sato (Cio-Cio-San) and Dominick Chenes (Pinkerton) in Seattle Opera's 'Madame Butterfly.' Photo by Jacob Lucas
Yasko Sato (Cio-Cio-San) and Dominick Chenes (Pinkerton) in Seattle Opera's 'Madame Butterfly.' Photo by Jacob Lucas

Even amid controversy, Seattle Opera’s production of Puccini’s, “Madame Butterfly,” is so stunning that it propelled the audience into a standing ovation at the first Sunday performance.

Seattle Opera’s latest opens at a time when the lack of racial equity in the performing arts is rightfully provoking protest, conversation and, hopefully, change around the country. Ever since a controversial production of, “The Mikado,” in 2014 hit the U.S. airwaves, the lens of racial stereotyping and cultural appropriation is being brought to bear on everything from a show’s content to its casting. “Madame Butterfly,” with its submissive 15-year-old geisha Cio-Cio San, has drawn flack from Seattle’s Asian-American community.

Seattle Opera has chosen to actively engage with these issues. None of the performers in the company’s production are using wigs or makeup to change their race. The company also reinstated dialogue highlighting the West’s imperialist oppression of Asian culture, which was cut after the opera’s disastrous 1904 premiere to make the opera more saleable. These sections help explain the power imbalance between the Japanese and American cultures that forms the nucleus of the fatal love affair between Cio-Cio San, known as Madame Butterfly, and American Navy Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton in turn-of-the-century Nagasaki, Japan.

Related events include panel discussions and a lobby exhibit examining Asian stereotyping in theater, film and television. In September, Seattle Opera is bringing back its production of Jack Perla and Jessica Murphy Moo’s “An American Dream,” about America’s internment of Japanese-American citizens in World War II. 

Under Australian Kate Cherry’s stage direction, the singers in Seattle Opera’s “Madame Butterfly,” have created far more complex, unique and three-dimensional characters than customary for this opera.

On Sunday, Japanese soprano Yasko Sato made her U.S. debut as Cio-Cio San.

Sato’s Cio-Cio San is no wilting flower. Despite her era’s social constraints, Sato plays her as spirited, with dignity and a strength of will befitting a Samurai warrior’s daughter. Sato is devastating in her evolution from an ingenuous 15-year-old falling deeply in love to her heartbreaking disillusionment about Pinkerton just three years later.

Dominick Chenes’ strapping tenor is ideal for Pinkerton. He is even a surprisingly sympathetic Pinkerton at times, such as when he realizes the extent of the pain and damage he has caused Cio-Cio San.

Renée Rapier’s Suzuki, Butterfly’s faithful maid, is both fierce defender of her beloved mistress and worried skeptic. Her delightful mezzo pairs well with Sato’s soprano. 

It’s always a joy to float away on Weston Hurt’s luxurious baritone. His Sharpless is a compassionate American Consul torn between duty and his desire to protect the trusting Cio-Cio San.

Rodell Rosel has added both humor and drama to his Goro, eliminating that character’s customary flatness. Plus he is vocally appealing.

Carlo Montanaro did a masterful job of conducting the talented Seattle Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

Originally designed for New Zealand Opera, production designer Christina Smith’s spare set of Japanese shoji screens shift and move, serving both to cage in Madame Butterfly and as a blank palette for Matt Scott’s impressive lighting, from realistic multicolored sunrises to the intense blood red of the opera’s tragic ending.

This production is rich with unforgettable moments. I am haunted by the heart-rending vision of Cio-Cio San standing outside her home like a statue, waiting hopefully all night for Pinkerton until all of the lanterns are extinguished and darkness is supplanted by day — and still no Pinkerton is in sight.

Seattle Opera’s “Madame Butterfly” plays at Marion Oliver McCaw Hall (321 Mercer St.), through Saturday, Aug. 19. Prices $25-$250. For more information, or to purchase tickets, call 206-389-7676 or go to www.seattleopera.org.

MAGGIE LARRICK is a freelance writer who lives in the Seattle area.