Full disclosure: Madame Butterfly is not one of my favorite operas. I understand its popularity and appreciate its usual appeal to most of its fans (sweeping melodies, exotic locales, an easy-to-feel-sorry-for heroine, etc.), but no matter how many chances I give it, I’m never drawn into the music or the drama.
Count me in the minority. The powers-that-be at Los Angeles Opera love themselves some Madame Butterfly. Eighty-ish times they’ve staged this particular Puccini number, more than any other opera in the company’s relatively short history. That’s because the local opera-watching public obviously loves it too: its box office success is as predictable as lines for the latest iPhone, and the current run had very strong sales even before Saturday’s opening night performance.
And an enjoyable opening night it was. Not great, not innovative, not enlightening, but enjoyable nonetheless.
Even if you’re predisposed to groan at the notion that the company would trot out this particular warhorse once again, the contributions of three of the men involved — tenor Brandon Jovanovich as US Navy Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton; bass-baritone Eric Owens as Sharpless, the American Consul; and conductor Grant Gershon — would still be worth your attention.
Mr. Jovanovich, in particular, was spectacular. He has a show-stopping voice, with a smooth, rich, and pure tone that rings out effortlessly. On top of that, he can act, too. His Pinkerton comes across with casual naiveté, clueless instead of callous. On the heels of his triumph in Lohengrin at San Francisco Opera just weeks before (read just one of the many glowing reviews HERE), I got the sense while experiencing him do his thing that this was a true star in the making. Easily the best new tenor of I’ve heard in at least a decade, probably two.
Mr. Owens was last seen at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion creating the title role in Elliot Goldenthal’s Grendel, and since then having his own recent Wagnerian success as Alberich in the Met’s ill-fated Das Reinhgold. Given that, his appearance as Sharpless was a bit of luxury casting. His voice could boom when called upon but it never bellowed, while his overall characterization was nicely restrained.
Mr. Gershon, recently promoted to the company’s Resident Conductor, led a beautifully nuanced performance from the orchestra, lush yet transparent, propulsive yet always sensitive to the singers on the stage. I don’t remember the orchestra ever sounding this good when someone other than its music director was on the podium.
Of course, any viable Madame Butterfly needs some good women too. In this production, both of the female leads were generally fine. Oksana Dyka was a vocally robust Cio-Cio San. She has a pretty enough voice that had no problem with the challenges of bigger moments like “Un bel di,” though neither her singing nor her stagecraft was particularly distinctive. The same can largely be said for Milena Kitic’s Suzuki.
Among the smaller roles, tenor Rodell Rosel’s Goro was easily the standout. Museop Kim (Prince Yamadori), Stefan Szkafarowsky (Bonze), D’Ana Lombard (Kate Pinkerton) all handled their respective parts capably. Garret Chang was adorable as Cio-Cio San’s son, Trouble; how a very young boy can remain quiet and still for that long, let alone follow stage direction in front of 3,000+ people, is completely beyond me.
If you’ve gotta have a traditionally-minded production, this one, borrowed from San Francisco Opera, looked good. Michael Yeargan’s set design is clean and unobtrusive, framing the action well with sliding screens that also allow for some variety from scene to scene. His costumes matched the setting effectively, not to mention nicely hiding the baby bump of a 5-month pregnant Ms. Dyka. Director Ron Daniels kept the action flowing, albeit generically.
Despite its popularity, this Madame Butterfly only has a total of six performances in its run. Once it is over, things will remain quiet on the LA Opera stage until The Flying Dutchman opens in early March 2013.
Los Angeles Opera: November 17 – December 9, 2012; Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
by Giacomo Puccini
libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
Cio-Cio-San: Oksana Dyka
B.F. Pinkerton: Brandon Jovanovich
Suzuki: Milena Kitic
Sharpless: Eric Owens
Goro: Rodell Rosel*
Bonze: Stefan Szkafarowsky*
Prince Yamadori: Museop Kim++
Kate Pinkerton: D’Ana Lombard+*
Imperial Commissioner: Gabriel Vamvulescu
Official Registrar: Hunter Phillips+
Conductor: Grant Gershon
Director: Ron Daniels
Scenic and Costume Designer: Michael Yeargan
Lighting Designer: Stephen Strawbridge*
* LA Opera debut artist
+ Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program member
++ Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program alumnus
Photo credits: Robert Millard