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Madame Butterfly at LA Opera: Toned Down and Tuned Up

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Though Puccini's Madame Butterfly is the most performed and popular work in LA Opera's 27-year history, it is never guaranteed a sure-fire production. Contemporary stagings must straddle potential minefields: depicting cross-cultural encounters without succumbing to kitschy stereotypes and addressing modern skepticism of some character motivations, while staying true to the work's emotional intensity. Robert Wilson's Kabuki version over several seasons here was classy and lovely to gaze upon, but for some its stylized stasis left the human dimension bloodless enough to drain truth from verismo.

Deleveraging anything to do with high concept, Butterfly's new production at LA Opera, arriving from San Francisco, provides a less stylized if somewhat still abstracted staging. Ron Daniels, whose 2010 LAO production of Il Postino made waves and travelled far, directed at both venues. LA's straightforward Butterfly unfolds on a wide-screen format. Framed by Michael Yeargan's minimalist scenic design, a series of sliding panels straddling the length of the Chandler Pavilion's stage define the sparsely furnished, traditional Japanese home of Cio-Cio-San (aka Madame Butterfly). Open or closed panels discretely suggest action in or out of doors, as lit by Stephen Strawbridge's moody hues. With Yeargan's extravagantly colorful costumes this Butterfly is a luxurious feast for the eye.

For all that, the dramatic action lacks a certain chemistry, due not so much to the generally strong cast, but to the requirement to space the principals far enough apart to fill the wide stage area. Moments of tenderness between Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton are shared mostly at a distance. Dialogue among others takes place across even further expanses of the stage.

The weight of poverty and separation between Cio-Cio-San's marriage to Pinkerton and his brief return some years later is often at least partially depicted by scenic device. This production renders just a few visual clues, most notably the removal of President Theodore Roosevelt's portrait from the premises at the opening of the last act. The burden to convey the geisha's increasing despair then sits squarely on Cio-Cio-San's shoulders. Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka, last year's Tatyana in Eugene Onegin, is a formidable vocal power, but her stage movements seemed a tad too careful; her portrayal less lived than acted. Consequently, Dyka's Cio-Cio-San was not so much vulnerable or pitiable as simply subdued. Milena Kitic's Suzuki, by contrast, emoted the sympathetic intensity lacking in her mistress and her vocal performance also stood up well in comparison.

Brandon Jovanovich's Pinkerton was to the manner born. A pug nose and jutting jaw enhanced a stage swagger that nailed the superficially charming Naval lieutenant. Young enough to project a clueless cockiness, Jovanovich is also veteran enough in this role to convince in his late-in-the-action remorse. (A silhouette on the back screen deftly announces the arrival of his warship in the final act.) Jovanovich's plangent, silver-bright tenor had the requisite lyric sheen to match Dyka's volume. His Pinkerton is definitive in our time and his presence in this production a cause for grateful celebration.

Eric Owens' deep-toned Sharpless was luxury casting here. The bass-baritone has come into recent prominence singing all the scary roles he could fit into a still young career: the Met Opera's Alberich in its recent Ring Cycle, the Doktor in Santa Fe's Wozzeck, and the title role in LA's Grendel. Owens' right-minded and sympathetic role here was nonetheless a natural and well-deserved change of stage persona for the genial singer. Lesser roles were likewise well-handled: Rodell Rosel's Goro was appropriately cynical as the marriage broker, Stefan Szkafarowsky was formidably threatening as the Bonze, and Museop Kim was stoic as Butterfly's spurned suitor.

Though it sounds effortless, Madame Butterfly's score was not at all easy to compose, much less stage. Puccini felt the need to tweak it obsessively for two decades after its 1904 La Scala premiere. As finally settled upon, however, the work is a miraculous melding of post-Wagnerian harmonies, Impressionistic devices, pentatonic scales and sensuous colorations from brass and woodwinds, harp and a chorus of women. With a stage concept not overly riveting in this production, these musical values rose in high relief. The afternoon's performances were idiomatic and flowing by orchestra and chorus under LA Opera's Resident Conductor, Grant Gershon. From the crisp orchestral fugue that opens the work to its final pathetic strains, the composer's masterful assimilation of styles proved itself once again, particularly in Gershon's fine pacing of the long orchestral interlude of Butterfly's overnight vigil.

With LA Opera's vigorous production of Verdi's early The Two Foscari, and its later fresh take on Mozart's Don Giovanni, this Madame Butterfly continues a run of popular productions at a company still growing in stature even as it recovers from the financial set-backs of a wobbly economy.

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Note: The production and performance were vociferously applauded by a full house on Sunday afternoon. However, in the tried and true silent-film practice of jeering the heavies, the audience booed Jovanovich's Pinkerton at curtain call. Booing operatic villains has of recent become a vogue, but it is nonetheless boorish and bad protocol. Singers work hard to please and stir their audiences, whether in sympathetic or unsympathetic roles. Applaud or boo the performance, but don't boo the role.

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'Madame Butterfly' continues at LA Opera thru December 9, 2012.
Performance reviewed: November 25, 2012
Photos by Robert Millard used by permission of LA Opera
Rodney Punt can be contacted at Rodney@artspacifica.net