What more is there to say about “Madame Butterfly?” You know the music is glorious; it sticks in your head for days, just as Puccini peppers his themes through the score. What is more, modern audiences can connect with the issues in this early twentieth century work. Only the emotionally deprived can sit through Act II without a moist eye. When Cio-Cio-San’s little boy (delicious 5-year-old Nicholas Cuenca Terry) wrapped himself in the oversized American flag to meet his father I was a goner. LA Opera relies on Butterfly to pack audiences in, and come they do, enthusiastically filling the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. But three frequent flyer crowd pleasers in a row – this season “Butterfly” is flanked by “The Magic Flute” and “La Boheme” – perhaps it is time for some more creative programing.
There, having gotten that off my chest let us take a look at the current production. No surprise, conductor James Conlon and the LA Opera orchestra are magnificent. The music soars and so do the voices of most of the performers. Ana Maria Martinez may not be physically convincing as a teenage Japanese girl, but her tone is magnificent and she is emotionally attuned to the ups and downs of Cio-Cio-San. Throughout, Milena Kitic is a rich Suzuki, emotionally connected to her foolish young mistress. Ironically, the only Asian in the cast, Kihun Yoon, very capably sings and plays the part of Sharpless, the troubled American Consul with a heart who can see the damage about to occur. Alas there is one fly in this ointment: Stefano Secco, Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, a heavy mantle to lay on a child, and it fits Secco no better as an adult. Though a capable tenor he is not equal to the lusty swell of this orchestra and his acting chops are sadly lacking. Hardly the figure to set a young lass’ heart aflutter. Keith Jameson (Goro the marriage broker) knows how to be unctuous, oleaginous, persistent or pushy to close a deal.
The current “Butterfly” is a Santa Fe Opera production. The idea is your basic Japanese pavilion on a hill, or so we are told. The opening view is stunning: a huge and magnificent rising sun and boughs of cherry blossoms reaching from the wings surrounding the simple outline of a pavilion. In Santa Fe, with the backstage open to an amazing desert view, the hill concept must have been very convincing. On the Chandler’s vast stage, with a vacant backstage, the small pavilion that moved around is less than enticing and the blank back wall creates no sense of a harbor. A further distraction is the hanging of shoji panels and frequent sliding of the screens without apparent purpose. As “Butterfly” sets go, it is fairly conventional, but by no means inspired.
Is this the definitive “Butterfly?” I think not. But is there enough to enjoy? With the LA Opera orchestra and Ana Maria Martinez in the fore there is more than enough to satisfy.