`Butterfly' mixes vocal, visual power

Review: The Washington Opera takes the director's concept and runs with it.

November 03, 2001|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Opera productions that come with a "director's note" in the program can be summed up by the nickname of the unfortunate, half-American child born to the heroine of Puccini's Madama Butterfly - "Trouble."

The Washington Opera's provocative, often powerfully affecting presentation of Butterfly more or less breaks that rule.

Yes, there's a note from the director, Mariusz Trelinski, trying to explain his "concept." He makes all sorts of deep statements about seeking "the hidden meaning in a work of art," finding its "spiritual dimension," and his use of symbols and gestures to let the audience see "hints of spatial contours rather than architecture."

He goes on to claim that opera used to be "the queen of kitsch and unsophisticated audiences" but is now "one of the last bastions of true art," which is why he "switched from directing films to directing opera."

It's enough to make you suspect the worst, and even long for the good old days when nobody bothered much with directing operas, when singers just stood around and barked at each other until the curtain came down. But then, the curtain comes up at the Kennedy Center Opera House, and Trelinski's philosophizing pays off in a staging that is, at the very least, gripping theater.

Happily, it isn't a case of all concept and no musical values. The imagination at work in the visual side of the opera is amply matched with considerable vocal powers onstage and in the pit.

There are, to be sure, some aspects about this super-linear, highly stylized Butterfly that don't work. Given that Trelinski thinks opera used to be the queen of kitsch, for example, it's funny that he would sanction a wildly kitschy touch from scenic designer Boris F. Kudlicka in the third act, when massive, menacing sculptures and a huge neon-lit circle appear, adorning an altar where Butterfly finds her suicidal dagger.

It's so over-the-top that it almost detracts from the very next scene of Butterfly's ultimate self-sacrifice, which could not look much more stunning - a deep red stage with a black sun as backdrop; a ritualized slow dance of death, capped by a defiant fist.

Ordinarily, there wouldn't be any scene-changing during the last act. But in this fascinating venture, imported from the Teatr Wielki-National Opera Warsaw and masterfully lit by Joan Sullivan-Genthe, the eye is constantly being given new images.

Butterfly's entrance isn't the usual walk-on, but a sensual arrival aboard one of three boats that glide across a red sea (yes, red again - no doubt part of the production's symbolic undercurrents). The Letter Scene of Act 2 is literally letter-boxed; the action takes place on an elevated space framed by black curtains.

Anyone looking for the traditional Japanese house where this tragic case of West-meets-and-deserts-East normally unfolds will be disappointed; Puccini's opera has been given a fresh spin that forces you to consider the characters in new ways. The unusual costumes help. We don't get an America naval uniform for Pinkerton; his outfit is closer to surgical wear. Sharpless, the American consul, seems to be wearing a Nehru suit.

One inspired touch borrows from kabuki theater; three mimes move through the opera like dark angels. The sight of that trio materializing to help Butterfly prepare for death (one snatches her boy from her arms and hauls him offstage like a sack of flour) is stunning.

On Tuseday evening, soprano Veronica Villarroel started out tentatively as Butterfly but had a metamorphosis thereafter; her singing came alive with vivid, touching nuances.

Marcus Haddock's technical strength and emotional power fleshed out the role of Pinkerton. As Sharpless, baritone Andrey Breus was somewhat limited in projection, but not in expressive feeling. (There will be various cast changes in these three roles as the production contunues.)

Elizabeth Bishop used her warm, ample mezzo effectively as Suzuki. Anthony Laciura sang sturdily as Goro and carried out the expanded physical part of the role; this Goro moved through the opera like a snake on drugs.

Renato Palumbo's conducting had terrific sweep and keen appreciation for the most tender moments in the score; the orchestra's response was generally polished.

Removed from its usual sentimental, picture-postcard environs, this Madama Butterfly soars in new ways that likely will have audiences thinking and debating for a long time to come.

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