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This 'Butterfly' has metamorphosed

L.A. Opera's restaging of Wilson's glowing production loses some luster without his hand.

January 23, 2006|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

A decade ago, Los Angeles Opera had a Puccini problem: The composer's most popular works, and particularly "Madame Butterfly," were staged so routinely that they had become stale. But in 2004, a several-year break from "Butterfly" -- and then its reemergence as a, well, beautiful butterfly in Robert Wilson's glowing, elegant production, conducted with exceptional lyricism by Kent Nagano -- pretty much restored Puccini's theatrical and musical credibility.

Now "Butterfly," all aglow again, is back. And so, unfortunately, is the Puccini problem. Last month, a tawdry "Tosca" was a return to the company's Puccini of old. Saturday night, when the company remounted Wilson's "Butterfly" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion with a new cast and conductor and without the director on hand, it became but an approximation of what it once had been.

That is not to say this production isn't still special. It hasn't lost its looks entirely, but it has lost some of its magic. Nothing is terrible, but neither is anything -- lighting, cast, conductor -- quite right any longer.

Had Wilson been around, his presence probably would have helped. By chance, the Paris Opera, where Wilson created his "Butterfly," also remounted it Saturday night, and the director chose to oversee that one, sending an assistant to help out in Los Angeles.

But the demands of any Wilson production may be too great for anyone but the director himself to properly fulfill. They begin with lighting. The set, all cool, utterly tasteful Japanese minimalism, comes to life with electricity. A backdrop drips glorious color, like a living painting. A character's hand or face is illuminated in a precise spot. Changes of luminescence can be sudden, shocking.

Saturday, spots were not spotless, often taking a second to find their target. The set didn't shimmer as it once had. A generalized impressionistic prettiness replaced an entrancing otherworldliness.

Fine singers were hired, with the American soprano Patricia Racette as the delicate Japanese teenager Cio-Cio-San, the solid tenor Marcus Haddock as her cad of a lover, the American sailor B.F. Pinkerton, and the popular Russian baritone Vladimir Chernov as the consul Sharpless. Dan Ettinger, a dynamic young Israeli, conducted.

All seemed on relatively the same wavelength, and they undoubtedly could have delivered an acceptable straight "Butterfly." But finding Wilson's wavelength, be it his elaborate motions or motionless poses, posed great difficulties for them.

Ettinger set the tone of pushing Puccini around rather than letting the opera float in a kind of never-never land. Racette was an old-fashioned Cio-Cio-San in the wrong dress walking a little funny. She is a warm soprano in her prime, but for this all-American singer, who specializes in melodramatic American roles -- she starred in Tobias Picker's new opera, "An American Tragedy," at the Metropolitan Opera last month -- "Butterfly" is just another American tragedy.

Wilson creates striking dramatic tension in his application of slow movement; Haddock, also vocally capable, was more stick figure. Chernov came closest to finding the balance between warmth and cool that can humanize a Wilson production.

Chernov's problem was that the Pavilion eats lyric baritones for breakfast. His choice was to forget about his character and work to project or forget about projection. He took a middle ground. So did Margaret Thompson as Butterfly's servant Suzuki. The mezzo was also victim to the hall's swallowing of some middle-range voices.

Two performers got it completely. One was Peter Blanchet, whose Goro, the Japanese who arranges Cio-Cio-San's marriage to the callous American, glided across the stage as if a creature from another world while delivering his asides with a purposeful evasiveness.

Finally, a word about Stephen Cruz, the 10-year-old who played Cio-Cio-San's son. He stole the show in this silent role. Wilson understands children, and this boy understands him. Cruz needed a conductor less in need of the limelight all for himself, but even as the child walked, ran, stood still, crouched, he revealed that movement has ineffable meaning and that the production is more than a pretty set for a sad story with moving music.


'Madame Butterfly'

Where: Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Feb. 1, 4, 8 and 16; 2 p.m. Sunday and Feb. 12 and 19

Price: $30 to $205

Contact: (213) 972-8001 or

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