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Iridescent 'Butterfly'

L.A. Opera recaptures much of the magic of a delicately shaded but dramatically powerful 2004 production of Puccini's tragedy.

October 03, 2008|Mark Swed | Times Music Critic

Robert Wilson's exquisite production of "Madame Butterfly" has once more floated in for a delicate landing at Los Angeles Opera.

The first time, in 2004, was the charm. Two years later, lacking a sensitive cast and conductor, the staging lost its mystery. The director was away as well, having chosen instead to remount Puccini's opera in Paris, where the production had been created 13 years earlier, for Chinese soprano Liping Zhang. He sent an assistant to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Wednesday night, Zhang made her company debut here. Wilson briefly returned to work on lighting and to coach the singers. Much of the magic is back.

This "Butterfly" has also roamed the world, even reaching the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. The production was filmed by Netherlands Opera. Many singers have attempted, but not many have succeeded, in achieving Wilson's goal of exterior austerity and inner warmth.

A singer stands still, body posed at sharp angles, against a background of stark light. Move a finger and you move a mountain. A sculpted chair might be a lone stage property and serve as a meaningful landscape. Move that and the world is rearranged. Light is restless, its own symphony.

Wilson's "Butterfly" stands apart from Puccini's music. Cio-Cio-San, the naive young Japanese woman who falls in love with an American naval officer, B.F. Pinkerton, misreads Western attitudes. But Wilson finds a new alien land, neither East nor West, where Butterfly and Pinkerton are strange creatures, sieves through which emotions pour.

It took Zhang an act to stop acting. She moved well enough -- her gliding entrance was lovely. Her tone began steely, then gradually softened. She could do little about her miscast Pinkerton, Franco Farina, whose instincts for effusive Puccini couldn't be stuffed into Frida Parmeggiani's futuristic dress whites.

In the second act, with Pinkerton back in the U.S., Zhang found her center and was a wonder. "Un bel di," her aria imagining a new life, was sung without excess. Zhang transported herself to the future through utter stillness, and this stillness prepared her for her later suicide. Wilson separates voice from gesture. The quieter and more effortless Zhang's poses became, the more luminous her voice.

There is much special about this production. Butterfly's son is silent, but Wilson creates a dance for a boy, excellently undertaken by Sean Eaton. Pinkerton's American wife, Kate, stands wind-swept like the masthead of a ship, a conspicuous contrast to Butterfly, and Erica Brookhyser made Kate a memorable image. Keith Jameson's Goro slithered like an insect on delicate legs.

These are not important roles, but their effect was. Consistently, singers who moved well had a greater vocal effect. So Stephen Powell's Sharpless and Catherine Keen's Suzuki, decently sung, were not powerful presences, although Suzuki's duet with Cio-Cio-San did achieve a quiet radiance.

The bigger problem for me came from the pit. James Conlon conducted a dramatically committed performance that sounded as though it meant to compensate for Wilson's staging. When he was music director of the Paris National Opera, Conlon worked with Wilson, but he didn't demonstrate much sympathy for the director there, nor did he Wednesday. The sense of naturalistic, passionate theater that L.A. Opera's music director sensibly brought to Puccini's "Il Trittico" last month in this case went against the Wilson grain.

Conlon's preference for a prompter's box required a structure in the pit that wouldn't too badly interfere with the minimalist set. But a sore thumb is a sore thumb, no matter how carefully bandaged.

Still, from a purely musical point of view, Conlon worked on a high level. As usual, he drew excellent, expressive playing from the orchestra. The chorus sang beautifully. But Wilson separates eye and ear. He leaves the responsibility to each member of the audience to find his or her inner Puccini. Conlon isn't quite that Zen.


"Madame Butterfly," Los Angeles Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. 2 p.m. Sunday; 1 p.m. Wednesday; 7:30 p.m. Oct. 10; 2 p.m. Oct. 12; 7:30 p.m. Oct. 15 and 18. (Michele Crider will sing Cio-Cio-San on Oct. 18.) $20 to $250. (213) 972-8001 or

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