If you can imagine Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" without the lush Japanese garden festooned with cherry blossoms or the quaint house with its ubiquitous sliding screens, you're getting close to director Francesca Zambello's and designer Michael Yeargan's new production, which San Diego Opera opened Saturday at San Diego's Civic Theatre. By setting most of the opera in the American Consulate of Nagasaki, Zambello has both heightened the drama's clash of cultures and stripped the all-too-familiar opera of its sentimental overlay of Oriental exoticism.
When not in the confines of the consulate with its busy, claustrophobic waiting room, Yeargan opts for the abstract: His stage is practically vacant, save for transparent scrims that intermittently add scenic suggestions. This openness, combined with Alan Burnett's brilliant lighting, focuses all the attention on the characters' emotional states, which the composer keeps roiling in the orchestra, here under the gifted baton of Mexican conductor Eduardo Diamun~oz.
Without wrenching "butterfly" into some anachronistic time and setting--after "Miss Saigon" who needs it?--Zambello provides a thoroughly refreshing, rewarding look at the opera. She pushes it toward Shakespearean tragedy and away from mawkish melodrama. San Diego shares this production with three other companies; Houston Grand Opera premiered it in January, and the others in the group are the Dallas Opera and the Grand Thea^tre de Geneve.
San Diego Opera has assembled a strong international cast, with Japanese soprano Yoko Watanabe as Cio-Cio San, Mexican tenor Fernando de la Mora as Pinkerton, and Chinese mezzo Zheng Cao as Suzuki. Watanabe's dark dramatic soprano serves her in her opening scene as the 15-year-old geisha. De la Mora is a striking Pinkerton lending his American sailor the tricky combination of youthful bravado and innocent ardor. Would that the baritonal warmth of De la Mora's lower register ascended freely to his highest notes.
Cao's Suzuki exudes quiet strength and graceful lyricism, as does Kim Josephson's sympathetic Sharpless. Douglas Perry's unctuous, vocally pert Goro as well as Roberto Gomez's incisive Prince Yamadori merit praise, although David Downing projects weakly from the back of the stage as a glowering Bonze perched in front of a giant, dour Buddha.
* "Madama Butterfly" continues Tuesday, 7 p.m., Friday, 8 p.m., Sunday, 2 p.m., and March 18, 7 p.m., Civic Theatre, Third Avenue and B Street, San Diego. $31-$86. (619) 570-1100.