Madama Butterfly at LA Opera Review

Butterfly Flits in Heavy Style


Cio-Cio-San, the title role, sings "I come for love" at her wedding (Photo by Robert Millard).

Along with La Bohème, Madama Butterfly is one of Giacomo Puccini's most well known and most frequently performed operas. This production marks the return to the LA Opera of Robert Wilson's staging. This design was first mounted in Paris in 1993, and in Los Angeles in 2004 and later in 2006. According to LA Opera, Wilson's refined and austere staging, with stunning lighting effects and a set constructed of natural materials--wood and stone--help rediscover the story's Japanese atmosphere and underscore Puccini's heart-rending music.

Butterfly and Pinkerton rejoice on their wedding night (Photo by Robert Millard).

In the story, a trusting young woman commits herself to a man unworthy of her loyalty. The woman is a 15-year-old geisha from a proud but now impoverished family. And the man is a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, disembarked from a gunship and out for adventure.

This production is conducted by LA Opera's own James Conlon. Chinese soprano Liping Zhang makes her Company debut in the title role.

Soprano Liping Zhang sings the lead in all performances except 10/18 (courtesy LA Opera).

Robert Wilson's minimalist direction, design and lighting depart from the conventional ornate stagings of Butterfly. (Photo by Robert Millard).


Georja: This is an extremely stylized production. In addition, there's much less action than in most operas. So we end up with a lot of tableau scenes, which are staged artistically and beautifully--almost like paintings. My problem is in the action between the tableaus. It is very robotic and in my opinion detracts from the emotional impact. For example, the Japanese marriage broker (Goro, played by Keith Jameson) literally glides backwards across the floor, like a machine.


Gerald: To give credit to Wilson, I can think of at least two reasons for his design. First, the action is posed in the tradition of Japanese kabuki. Everything about the production is bare and emotionless in the way Westerners think of the outward Japanese demeanor. Second, he wanted to innovate. Opera audiences all over the world have seen Butterfly again and again. (We've seen it twice before.) And he's thinking--if you strip away all the 1904 ornate historical stuff--you're left with the music and the drama.

Butterfly's love for her son is her reason for living--and for dying (Photo by Robert Millard).

Georja: How am I supposed to respond to that? I don't know what he's thinking! Here's what I think. Franco Farina, who plays Lt. Pinkerton (the faithless husband), has "cad" written all over him. At his wedding to Butterfly, he drinks to the day he'll have a real marriage with a real American wife. Immediately, this sets up anxiety in the audience for the trusting young Japanese bride. (American Consul Sharpless, played by Stephen Powell, continually warns Pinkerton and reflects the sensibilities of the audience.)


Gerald: The opera is adapted from a play by David Belasco. At its core is resentment of the Americans at the turn of the century--Teddy Roosevelt's "gunboat diplomacy." This stylized set--you'll excuse the comparison--made me think of Star Trek. And it's not so far-fetched a comparison. Lt. Pinkerton and the Sharpless might as well be Klingons.


Georja: One of the most outstanding things about this production, in my opinion, is the casting. Liping Zhang makes a perfect Butterfly. She is petite, delicate in her movements, and her voice is light and melodious.


Gerald: No disagreement there. She's spectacular.

Cio-Cio-San is supported by her faithful servant Suzuki (Catherine Keen, Photo by Robert Millard).

Georja: Her husband has a snide and unflinching aspect to him. Suzuki (played by mezzo-soprano Catherine Keen) is awesome as her caring maid. And baritone Stephen Powell as Sharpless puts the most emotion into his arias--more emotion than anyone. But what really breaks through the style--and makes it all so human--is the little boy (in this performance, played by Sean Eaton). He's angelic. Unlike everyone else in their floor-length stylized attire, the boy comes out with only shorts. His unadorned, half-nude presence brings an immediacy to the human needs being expressed.

Gerald: The boy actually has a very difficult part. Midway through Act II, there's an orchestral interlude as Butterfly seems to go into deep meditation. That's the boy's cue to get up from her side and do what amounts to a solo ballet. It's really something to see.

Act II interlude ("hummed chorus") with Suzuki, Butterfly, and her son (Photo by Robert Millard).


Georja: Musically, the Act I duet between Butterfly and Pinkerton about the "night is serene" is incredibly lovely. And in Act II, when Butterfly sings her famous aria about her faith he'll return and love her again, it's a show-stopper. When she dies at the end, the audience gasps. At that final moment, for the first time in the production, I felt the style, the emotion, and the music worked together for maximum effect.

Gerald: Well, that's certainly a spoiler, but we warned that Puccini's heroines all meet tragic ends.

Butterfly is devastated when she encounters Kate (Erika Brookhyser, Photo by Robert Millard).


Georja: You could say his Muse is the suffering of his great female characters.

Michele Crider (right) sings Butterfly on Oct. 18 (Photo by Robert Millard).

Georja Umano is an actress-comedienne.

Gerald Everett Jones is the author of the Rollo Hemphill series of comic novels.

NOTE: Cio-Cio San will be played by Michele Crider on 10/18; Sharpless by Vladimir Chernov and Suzuki by Ning Liang on 10/10, 10/12, 10/15, and 10/18; Cio-Cio-San's Son by Thomas Kuklenski on some dates.

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LA Opera Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" (Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Downtown)


Wednesday, October 1, 2008 - 7:30 p.m.

Sunday, October 5, 2008 - 2:00 p.m.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008 - 1:00 p.m.

Friday, October 10, 2008 - 7:30 p.m.

Sunday, October 12, 2008 - 2:00 p.m.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008 - 7:30 p.m.

Saturday, October 18, 2008 - 7:30 p.m.


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