Both casts deliver Puccini’s classic with passion in a beautiful setting.

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It’s not often that you hear two singers sharing an opera’s leading-tenor role in the same evening. On Saturday, the opening night of Seattle Opera’s “Madame Butterfly” had a bit of extra drama: two Lieutenant Pinkertons.

Alexey Dolgov, who was scheduled to sing the role, was vocally indisposed, which became increasingly clear during the long first act (although he bravely landed the high C at the end of the duet). After intermission, company General Director Aidan Lang announced from the stage that Sunday’s tenor, Dominick Chenes, was in the audience and would take over the role for the remainder of the performance. (Pinkerton does not appear in Act II, and has much less to sing in Act III than in Act I.)

“Madame Butterfly” is never short on drama: love, pain, hope, despair, death. In our own time, the drama includes concern about the cultural insensitivity of Puccini’s opera — a subject on which Seattle Opera has engaged the community through thought-provoking essays, lobby displays, website discussions and an upcoming remount of its “an American Dream” production.

Opera review

‘Madame Butterfly’

Through Aug. 19; McCaw Hall, 321 Mercer St., Seattle; from $65, (206-389-7676, www.seattleopera.org).

In earlier centuries, many opera composers and librettists (almost all of them male) were clearly intrigued by the idea of slave girls, courtesans and exploited women, who were often depicted with a notable disregard for historical and cultural accuracy. Such is the case with “Butterfly,” which presents the 15-year-old heroine, Cio-Cio-San, as a “geisha,” a professional attainment that would have been highly unlikely at her age.

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It is the music, with gorgeous arias and duets and a passionate orchestral score, that has always drawn operagoers like a magnet to “Madame Butterfly” — and the musical values of this production are compelling indeed. On Saturday night, conductor Carlos Montanaro, a company favorite, led a large-scale, opulent performance that was beautifully paced, giving the singers plenty of interpretive scope and expertly building the drama.

Saturday’s Cio-Cio-San was the brilliant Lianna Haroutounian, who commanded the stage all evening with an all-out, full-voiced, big-hearted performance that brought out the bravos (and the handkerchiefs). What a singer; what an actress!

Weston Hurt was an empathetic and noble Sharpless; Renée Rapier a dignified, compelling Suzuki; and Rodell Rosel a wily and adept Goro. In a bit of “luxury casting,” Daniel Sumegi proved an unusually powerful Bonze; Ryan Bede was the hapless Yamadori, and Sarah Mattox gave unexpected and lovely depth to the small but pivotal role of Kate Pinkerton.

The production originated with New Zealand Opera (of which Aidan Lang was previously the general director), and the design is both simple and beautiful. Set designer Christina Smith created a house cleverly defined by movable screens, imaginatively lighted by Matt Scott with glowing lanterns that illuminated the Act I love duet to great effect. Director Kate Cherry’s staging was creative and lively, clearly defining the characters’ connections to each other and giving Cio-Cio-San and Suzuki some memorable moments with the former’s child, Sorrow (alternating in that non-singing role are Scarlett and Hazel del Rosario).

It was a great idea to stash the Seattle Opera Chorus (prepared by chorusmaster John Keene) near the theater’s high box seats for the famous Humming Chorus, for an otherworldly effect.

On Sunday, Yasko Sato took on the title role opposite Dominick Chenes (this time singing all three acts as Pinkerton). Sato is a lyrical singer and an affecting actress; she can convey vivid emotion in a single gesture or expression, and watching her hopes slowly decline in Cio-Cio-San’s long vigil was heartbreaking. Chenes displayed a bright, well-focused tenor and an energetic stage presence. Neither Chenes nor Sato was comfortable at the top end of Puccini’s above-the-staff scoring, but both know how to shape a phrase packed with Puccini’s emotional punch. That punch, conveyed most of all in the glorious arias, gives this opera its eternal power over listeners and musicians alike.