'Butterfly' is looking great

Times Staff Writer

Often gorgeous to look at and powerful in its dramatic impact, Opera Pacific's season-opening production of Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" at the Orange County Performing Arts Center came up short Tuesday only in the voice department.

Francesca Zambello's production, created for Houston Grand Opera in 1998 and directed in Costa Mesa by Garnett Bruce, sets the action in the office of Sharpless, the American consul in Nagasaki. In both acts, this space magically becomes an airy, open Japanese-woodblock version of the teenage bride Butterfly's hilltop home, overlooking an endless vista. Any contradictions with the text are smoothed over or simply disregarded.

In Act 1, the office is populated by a chorus of Japanese women clothed in period Western dress. The Americanization of Japan is in full flower. In Act 2, the group -- now with children -- has reverted to traditional garb, all apparently abandoned women seeking legal help. Butterfly's story is not unique.

That idea is reinforced by the crowd of children, women and vendors who voicelessly greet the arriving sailors -- including Butterfly's wayward husband, Pinkerton, and his American wife, Kate -- disembarking from the American lieutenant's ship. This takes place to the accompaniment of the morning music after the famous night-vigil "Humming Chorus," during which Butterfly, with infinite patience, stands at the back of the stage, turned away from the action, awaiting Pinkerton.

For the most part, these concepts were presented in such beautifully balanced stage pictures on Michael Yeargan's evocative sets, lovingly and suavely lighted by Alan Burrett, that they didn't detract from Butterfly's poignant story. It seemed unnecessarily blunt and cruel to portray Pinkerton silently wooing Kate during the morning scene, but Zambello did keep us focused on Butterfly. Her suicide scene was a coup de theatre, culminating with Butterfly, Pinkerton and their infant son, Trouble, grouped as a Pieta.

Certainly, Xiu Wei Sun in the title role offered committed, effective acting, as did the rest of the cast. But her vocal stridency, wobble and pitch insecurity detracted hugely from her effect. Sun alternates with Marie Plette in the role through the weekend.

Misha Didyk made a handsome blond Pinkerton, but his bright tenor was often tight and constricted in the heights and marred by a tremor. Didyk is scheduled to sing all performances.

Ashley Holland was a sympathetic but woolly voiced Sharpless. Mika Shigematsu brought atypical spunk to the role of Suzuki. As Goro, the marriage broker, Oscar ZC Zhang was incisive but vocally pinched. The rest of the cast was secure, as was the chorus.

John DeMain conducted with authority. Still, this was a "Butterfly" more beautiful to look at than to hear.


'Madame Butterfly'Where: Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: Today, Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, 2 p.m.

Price: $40-$185

Info: (800) 346-7372

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