Opera in two acts by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
With Oksana Dyka, Brandon Jovanovich, Milena Kitic and Eric Owens
Conducted by Grant Gershon
Directed by Ron Daniels
Los Angeles Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Through Dec. 9, 2012
There was a time — some people can still remember when — that it was an outrage to expect an opera director to include acting ability, suitability to a part, or physical grace in his casting choices. The voice, the voice … it was all about the voice. Indeed, some would say it was a sacrilege to criticize a singer for not looking or acting the part. The current Los Angeles Opera production of “Madame Butterfly” offers the opportunity to revisit those good old days, if in fact that is how you view them. “Butterfly” is the “Nutcracker” for opera companies, guaranteeing full houses and pleasing audiences with beautiful music and a wrenching story. These elements are present in the current LA Opera production, despite Ron Daniels’ somewhat antiquated direction.
So who broke the mold of singers who did not match the part? The diva whose name springs to mind is Maria Callas. Taking stock of her 200-pound girth in the early 1950s, she recognized what directors of her time were loath to acknowledge: the role a soprano is called upon to play, more often than not, is that of a young woman. Galumphing around the stage just would not cut it for her. Eighty pounds later, and moving with elegance and grace, she became the darling of the operatic stage despite the fact that controversy continued to swirl about her voice. Audiences in the 21st century are spoiled by the likes of Renee Fleming, Anna Netrebko, and Natalie Dessay. They can sing, they can act, they can move, and they can make our hearts break on every level.
Oksana Dyka, singing Cio-Cio-San in this LA Opera production, is reminiscent of sopranos of yore. No butterfly is she, unless the sobriquet is being applied in deliberate irony. Close your eyes and the voice is full. Forget the story and listen to a mature voice singing beautiful melody. Open your eyes, think about the story, and the effect is out of sync. Rather than a fragile, Japanese, 15-year-old from a noble family down on its luck, the audience is greeted to a full-figured woman who has apparently never watched a period film nor seen a geisha scurrying with mincing step down a Kyoto alley. Brandon Jovanovich, Pinkerton to Dyka’s Butterfly, has a challenge. He dishes out the quintessential cad of his character with such bravado that he was cheerfully booed at the curtain call by the matinee audience of this review (he returned the compliment with charm), but the sense of romance or even lust between the two is nowhere apparent on the stage. Their duets resonate musically, but fall flat dramatically.
The production itself is from the San Francisco Opera Company. I am not amongst those who bemoan the loss of the more avant-garde Robert Wilson/LA Opera production. The classic clean lines of the current production with movable shoji screens and a modest use of projection (mainly to suggest Pinkerton’s ship anchored in the harbor) work well to set the scene. It is the direction that falls short. Dyka is the most challenged when it comes to projecting an oriental sensibility, but others such as Milena Kitic (Suzuki), Rodell Rosel (Goro), Eric Owens (Sharpless), and Stefan Szkafarowsky (Bonze) seem to be on their own to try to create the effect.
Most curious of all is Grant Gershon’s conducting. Long the music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, Gershon at times surprisingly competed with, rather than support, the singers, so unlike the characteristic style of James Conlon. But these voices are not faint of heart; the singers hold up their part of the bargain, competing right back. The tone of the Los Angeles Opera Orchestra is full and lush; the voices are a match; and Puccini delivered the goods. There is a reason that “Butterfly” is the fail-safe production of most opera companies. Just don’t go for the acting or subtle interpretation.