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OPERA REVIEW

The Pacific Forces

'Madame Butterfly' tale of the tragic love between a Navy officer and Japanese bride doesn't exactly set standards. Still, it impresses.

November 05, 1998|Opera Review oMARK SWED | TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Opera Pacific does not exactly inspire confidence these days. The 12-year-old company seems ever unsettled in staff and artistic vision. After a dozen years at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, its image is of often tacky, under-rehearsed productions and pretense.

One need only look at the poster for the season's opening production of "Madame Butterfly" to sense the company's desperation. Designed like a movie one-sheet, it has a phony critic's quote above, " 'Don't miss this opera!' " and it advises "If you liked 'Miss Saigon' you'll love 'Madame Butterfly.' " No singers are listed in the credits, but then the two casts do not feature many familiar names. By the time the latest executive director, Martin G. Hubbard, stepped onto the Segerstrom Hall stage Tuesday to tell the audience how this opening night would set new standards for Puccini's opera, only the ticket prices seemed big league.

So how to explain this terrific production of Puccini's opera? It may not exactly set new standards, except maybe for Opera Pacific, but it is, in fact, an elegant, sophisticated show imported from San Francisco Opera, handsomely designed, stunningly lit and, for the most part, convincingly performed.

The director, Ron Daniels, does have one theatrical conceit that doesn't entirely work but isn't especially annoying either. He treats the opera as a flashback. Trouble, the son of Butterfly and her callous American lover, Pinkerton, is now grown up and haunts the stage, discovering his heritage. It is a little strange, perhaps, to see him lurking about on his parents' wedding night, but the concept does add a kind of mysterious quality to the story. And it works well with Michael Yeargan's minimalist sculptural set, with its striking painted sliding screens and Stephen Stawbridge's bold and evocative lighting of a back scrim.

Otherwise, Daniels' direction is unfussy narrative. The singers of the first cast look good and act well. Craig Siranni is an affable Pinkerton, who sings with a pleasant ease except when pressed for an ardent climax. But that is an interesting subtlety; the American sailor, who takes a teenage Japanese bride as a lark, becomes less an Ugly American than a more palatable clueless one.

Frank Hernandez is a sympathetic Sharpless, the American consul; Dennis Petersen is as loud a Goro as you would ever want. But it is Butterfly's servant, Suzuki, who steals attention. Zheng Cao is riveting in her small role; every movement, every facial gesture telling and right; her voice a rich, warm, perfectly balanced mezzo-soprano.

Butterfly, this first night, didn't quite fit. Paula Delligatti, who is quickly developing a reputation for the role in American and European houses, comes from an older, more traditionally emotional school. She is not slight, demure or young seeming. But she focuses her soprano like a laser and is compelling to listen to, if not to watch.

I don't know how much the company's improvement can be credited to John DeMain, who was recently elevated from principal conductor to music director, given that planning is usually done far in advance. But he is clearly a positive force. He conducted a finely sculpted performance, and he has begun to improve the orchestra. The strings and brass were impressive; I would guess the winds will be next for upgrading. Then, maybe, he can take a look at the chorus.

* "Madame Butterfly" repeats with alternating casts tonight, Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, 2 p.m., Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, (800) 34-OPERA. $28-$131.

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