OPERA REVIEW : Revisionist 'Butterfly' at Pavilion

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

'Madama Butterfly" used to be the ideal vehicle for instant opera.

A lot of preparation time? Forget it. A lot of original thought? No need.

Just stuff a prima donna into a kimono and a tenor into a sailor suit. Rent a tattered set that depicts a reasonable facsimile of a hilltop abode in old Nagasaki. Get a traffic cop to enforce the movement plan outlined in the libretto. Hand out fans to the chorus, and hankies to the audience. Grind out the sad hum-along tunes. Stir reverently and somnolently.

As quick as you can say "Un bel di," success is assured.

That's the way it used to be just about everywhere. That's certainly the way it was when the Music Center Opera mustered its first "Butterfly" back in 1986. That isn't the way it was Thursday night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, when the company tried again at the opening of its sixth season.

The new production of "Madama Butterfly"--conducted by Randall Behr and directed by Ian Judge with sets by John Gunter and costumes by Liz da Costa--isn't particularly trendy. It doesn't move the action to a decadent postwar Japan scarred by the atom bomb. It doesn't play around with misplaced Mitsubishis and interpolated Toyotas. It doesn't take place under water, on a spaceship, or on the moon. We can be thankful for big favors.

Still, it does take the drama seriously, and it does take chances. One doesn't have to admire the results--not all of them, anyway--to applaud the initiative.

The forbidding, sparsely stylized unit set depicts a steeply raked terrace flanked by a perilous ascending ramp. This could be a flimsy retreat in the sand dunes, or perhaps one of those scary structures held up by toothpicks in Laurel Canyon.

The stage is encased in a series of crimson frames. There is no room here for a quaint little bridge or for mock-fireflies. Oriental kitsch has been banned. Sentimental pictures are not wanted.

The tough perspective affects the drama in many ways. Even though Sharpless calls Pinkerton "amico fortunato," the Consul obviously disapproves violently of everything the caddish lieutenant does. There is hardly any bowing, scraping or preening at the decidedly non-joyous wedding party. Suzuki, who used to be a helpless offstage bystander at Cio-Cio-San's kara-kiri , now functions as an active accomplice.

Such changes need not be automatically regarded as improvements. Some, in fact, are contradicted explicitly in the text and implicitly in the music. The most drastic, and most problematic, revisionism, however, involves the characterization of the hapless protagonist.

Maria Ewing, who is undertaking the title role for the first time in her vicissitudinous career, is not the sort of artist who accepts second-hand solutions to any problem. For better or worse--in this case, probably worse--she imposes her own ideas on Puccini and his librettists.

They certainly are interesting ideas, but often they are perverse ideas. This Butterfly is no tittering child bride, no giddy idealist in love with love. She is not a vulnerable innocent at the outset and not much of a tragic victim at the denouement. There is little room here for dramatic development.

Ewing stalks the entire opera as if in a dignified neurotic daze. She seldom smiles, never laughs, moves only when absolutely necessary and then slowly. Even at her wedding, she seems haunted by some awful pain: her father's suicide? her imminent religious renunciation?

She resists any suggestion of passion in the love duet, and stays calm, though her tone gets louder, at the climactic moment when she sights Pinkerton's ship. Ecstasy eludes her in the ensuing flower duet. Her much delayed, clinically specific death scene seems inevitable from the start. In context, it also seems more like a mad scene.

What price originality?

Vocally, this mezzo turned soprano of all trades and all shades, seems to be in patchy trouble. She is still capable of producing exquisite pianissimo phrases and, if the line doesn't rise too high, healthy forte outbursts. She still colors the text vividly. But the breaks between registers are becoming problematic, and she sounds alarmingly breathy at mid-range.

She also sounds precarious at the top. She chose the low option at the crest of the entrance aria (in which she made an oddly belated entrance) and cautiously avoided rising to the usual soft climax in the last-act lullaby. Her brief high C at the end of the love duet suggested determination and desperation, not erotic exultation.

Pinkerton is hardly a role coveted by supertenors. The role is less than sympathetic, and it is short--the nasty hero doesn't even appear in Act II. Placido Domingo, who last sang it at the Music Center with the New York City Opera in 1967, gave it up long ago.

He returned to it on this gala occasion as a one-night good-will gesture toward the company he serves as artistic consultant, and as compensation for his withdrawal as conductor. Jorge Antonio Pita, a newcomer, takes over the five remaining performances.

Unlike the soprano-protagonist, Domingo explored no hidden facets of the character at hand. Nevertheless, he did exude considerable Latin charm as the American naval officer, and he sang with opulence befitting an Otello.

Although the masterminds behind the production reverted, wisely, to the two-act construction favored by Puccini at the world premiere, Domingo surprised no one by retaining the aria that the composer added when he divided the opera into three acts. The "addio" to Butterfly's "fiorito asil" has seldom rung with such fervor.

Thomas Allen, our incipient Don Giovanni, represented luxury casting as Sharpless. Convincingly dour and befuddled, he brought Schubertian sensitivity to Puccini's staunch cantilena.

Stephanie Vlahos as the brooding, light-voiced Suzuki dominated a strong supporting cast. Francis Egerton was the ever-suave Goro, Michael Gallup the quietly menacing Bonze, Paula Rasmussen the prettily distressed Kate Pinkerton. John Atkins, who moves up to Sharpless on Sept. 29, served here as a properly pathetic Prince Yamadori.

Presiding over a loud, expanded and not terribly neat Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in the pit, Randall Behr sustained slow tempos with plenty of room for expressive expansion. He is not afraid to wear Puccini's heart on his sleeve.

Incidental intelligence:

* David Anglin's ubiquitous, distracting supertitles translated the opera into quaint and prim librettese. They also described numerous props that the director chose to banish from the stage and cited Cio-Cio-San's "obi" at a time when she had slipped into a silky Western nightie.

* Unlike the sophisticated first-nighters at the San Francisco Opera last week, the opening-night audience in Los Angeles actually paid respectful, discerning attention to the music and the drama. There may be hope. . . .

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