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September 24, 2017

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Soprano Martinez tries out 'Butterfly' wings in Houston

HOUSTON -- A major new role for a soprano returning to one of her favorite houses. A local debut by one of the world's leading tenors. A spare and elegant production by a famous British director.

The Houston Grand Opera could hardly have asked for more as it opened its 56th season Friday night with "Madame Butterfly," Puccini's cautionary East-meets-West tale of a Japanese child bride seduced and abandoned by an American naval officer.

Singing the title role for the first time, Ana Maria Martinez displayed a sturdy lyric soprano full of warm colors and delicate shadings. She rose easily to the optional D-flat to cap her entrance in Act 1 and made it through the grueling marathon of Acts 2 and 3 (performed here without intermission) with no sign of fatigue.

At this point, however, she doesn't quite have the visceral power or cutting edge required to soar above the heavily orchestrated climaxes that Puccini wrote for his heroine. "Un bel di," the aria in which she rapturously imagines the return of her beloved, was a touch too restrained. And her farewell to her young son before she kills herself was merely sorrowful when it should be gut-wrenching.

Dramatically, Martinez conveyed a touching vulnerability, and she did a plausible job of enacting Butterfly's transformation from lovestruck 15-year-old to destitute mother clinging to her illusions. But here, too, as in her vocal performance, there was a trace of blandness, of playing it safe.

Martinez, a native of Puerto Rico, is an alumna of the Houston Grand Opera Studio and has performed here frequently, so it was natural she should try out such a demanding role on home ground. It may well be that with time this gifted artist will grow into a memorable Butterfly.

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