It wasn't "Madama Butterfly" set in Pacific Palisades. It wasn't "Madama Butterfly" moved to Somalia, Brooklyn or Mars.
The latest Opera Pacific version of the hardy-perennial tear-jerker, introduced Saturday night at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, looked pretty much like Puccini business as usual. It also looked pretty. Period.
More important, perhaps, it sounded pretty. Carefully cast by David DiChiera and sensitively--if not too sentimentally--conducted by John Mauceri, Opera Pacific paid the composer the compliment of taking the work seriously on his own antiquated terms. In opera, one can't take things like that for granted any more.
This shouldn't imply that Ken Cazan's stage direction was devoid of innovation. He kept the cast very busy, stressing realistic detail sometimes to the point of symbolic distortion.
In this context, Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton emerged as an exceptionally Ugly American who openly ridiculed Japanese mores and manners. An overwrought Cio-Cio-San had to execute choreography dangerously close to a "Dance of the Seven Veils" as she awaited Pinkerton's return during the orchestral interlude that separates the last scenes.
When the heroine sighted her errant husband's ship, a ton of cherry blossoms fell from the clouds to underscore her rapture. In the unhappy finale, the sky turned conveniently crimson in a melodramatic freeze-frame just as Pinkerton tried to retrieve his frightened son, literally over Butterfly's dead body.
The effects weren't exactly subtle.
Much of the time, however, Cazan was content to create pathos without pizazz. He motivated the action meticulously, fleshed out the secondary characters cleverly, tried valiantly to outlaw verismo cliches and, despite some up-and-down fussy-business involving screens and shades, showed a fine appreciation for old-fashioned pictorial values.
Since he had inherited a handsome, literal, much-traveled set, designed 30 years ago by Ming Cho Lee for the Metropolitan National Company (long lamented), the director's essential conservatism seemed wise. Also practical.
The cast was dominated, thank goodness, by Elena Filipova, a sympathetic Bulgarian soprano making her local debut in the title role. Although slim and graceful, she made little effort to impersonate the demure teen-ager described in the libretto. Her Butterfly was strong, hearty and resolute from the start--eager to shake hands, American-style, with Sharpless, eager to abandon her culture in the name of love, eager to assume the anachronistic doom of a liberated woman in turn-of-the-century Nagasaki.
Filipova's singing was no model of technical perfection, especially at the outset. She often produced unusually loud, dark, thick--and sometimes unwieldy--sounds in the middle register, only to encounter difficulties with the high climaxes. She avoided the top D-flat with which Puccini capped the entrance aria, legitimately if anticlimactically choosing the composer's lower alternative. She nearly came to grief on the C that ends the love duet and reduced the sighting of Pinkerton's ship to a rather feeble, wordless vocalise.
But . . .
Filipova really excelled in the introspective passages. She proved in the Cherry Duet that she knows how to sustain a long, arching legato line. She shaded the text with telling dynamic nuances. She projected the passionate desperation of the hara-kiri scene with equal parts intensity and restraint. And, perhaps most memorable, she ennobled the little lullaby to her child with an exquisite, heart-breaking pianissimo.
Richard Di Renzi, 6-foot-4 and burly, towered above her as a brusque, bright-but-tight-sounding Pinkerton. Mark Pedrotti offered a solid standard-brand Sharpless. (Has any baritone ever managed to do this role badly?) Irina Mishura, a Moldavian mezzo-soprano scheduled to return next season in the more formidable challenge of Carmen, introduced a properly supportive Suzuki equipped with uncommonly strong chest tones.
Jon Kolbet turned Goro, the marriage broker, into a beguilingly wily wheeler-dealer with a yen, as it were, for Western attire (costumes by Zack Brown). The others, recruited from the Opera Pacific apprentice program and chorus, offered more dramatic than vocal distinction.
Mauceri, who had led the previous "Butterfly" here in 1991, again imposed the composer's original two-act structure but retained the tenor aria added after the 1904 premiere. The compromise made sense. So did the maestro's theatrical authority, not to mention his surprisingly propulsive tempos.
"Madama Butterfly," performed by Opera Pacific at Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Remaining performances Sunday, 2 p.m.; March 15 and 17, 8 p.m.; March 19, 2 p.m.; March 25, 8 p.m. Guiping Deng sings title role March 19. $18-$85. Information: (800) 34-OPERA.