Cher Public

To live and die (with honor) in L.A.

ButterflyLos Angeles first saw Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly presented at the Mason Opera House downtown in 1908 by the English Grand Opera Company. Rumors that LA Opera Artistic Director Placido Domingo portrayed Cio-Cio San’s little boy in that production remain unsubstantiated. 

Puccini’s three-hanky weeper has remained a staple with LA Opera over its 30 years and production styles have run the gamut from the hyperrealism of Michael Yeargan to the sleek stylizations of Robert Wilson. The current production, which originated at Santa Fe Opera in 2010, finds a nice balance between the two.

Director Lee Blakeley manages to keep the characters involved in telling the story to each other, and by balance the audience, in a staging that is welcome for both its understatement and lack of cliche. At the final curtain a single moment I found false did little to dampen the sheer pleasure of the performance up until that point.

The set by Jean-Marc Puissant that showed the “desert” influence of its origin. A fairly barren Nagasaki with a wooden house on a turntable was assembled as preparations for the wedding were carried out. The time of the production was nudged to just after the turn of the 20th century as evidenced by the street lights and telephone poles that adorned the second act.

Costumes designed by Brigitte Reiffenstuel—naturally plain and discreetprovided a welcome respite from the gaudy Japonisme that so often leaves this opera looking like department store window dressing. The turntable was used only sparingly at a few key moments and provided some striking cinematic images in the last act.

Butterfly 1A very strong cast, both vocally and dramatically, began with the Goro of Keith Jameson who oiled his way about the stage in a three-piece suit while managing not to offend anyone with overt stereotypes and employed a sharp character tenor. Yamadori, I’m sorry to say, wasn’t able to project, but the Bonze, sung by Nicholas Brownlee, almost scared me off of marriage he was so righteous in his fury.

Baritone Kihun Yoon, who is being groomed by the young artists’ program here and with reason, sang the Consul Sharpless. He possesses an exceptionally rich voice that carries easily into the theater. He was also game to enough to have the makeup department give him a balding pate with a greasy comb-over. Dramatically he gave a strong performance that relied primarily on his interplay with Suzuki as the two members in the story who were able to see the truth in the events unfolding.

Next on the sonority scale was the abundant mezzo of Milena Kitic as the faithful Suzuki. She anchored the production in several key moments with quiet grace, most especially during the vigil in the middle of Act II. As she prepared the exterior of the house for Pinkerton’s arrival she actually broke down during the humming chorus, finally cracking under the pressure of her mistresses unflagging optimism. It was an unexpected and touching moment. If her pointed characterization outweighed the beauty of her naturally plush voice it only made it more clear what a pleasure it was to have someone firing on all cylinders.

Stefano Secco as Pinkerton wasn’t quite in the same vocal league as the rest of the cast. He certainly sang well enough and hit all the notes. His top has a beat now and then and although you could hear that he was pushing for more there was little expansion of the voice above the staff. As an actor he was perfectly adequate… but then again Pinkerton is written off as a one-dimensional character to begin with and Secco didn’t seem to be interested in exploring further.

Butterfly 3Now it’s no secret that the weight of any performance of Butterfly rests squarely on the shoulders of the singer who’s interpreting Puccini’s doomed Geisha. Our scheduled soprano, Ana María Martínez, actually joined the production very late after filling in for a colleague at the Met in the same role and arriving in Los Angeles just in time to sing at Nancy Reagan’s funeral. Apparently she even missed the Sitzprobe! By the second performance she seemed to have settled in.

Playing the character more naively than some, she rarely went for those “princess” moments of steely command. Her reserve generated an excellent contrast in her interplay with both Suzuki and Sharpless since they were portrayed as the real adults of the story. Martinez’ Cio-Cio San attained adulthood in the final half hour, a transition all the more telling for the unabashed girlishness that came before it. One lovely bit, that showed her art, was when she was displaying her box of possessions to Pinkerton and he disapproved of her pot of rouge. She told Suzuki to dispose of it with a knowing wink.

Her singing showed the same command of subtlety of inflection both in phrasing and diction. She actually garnered spontaneous applause at her entrance, which was hardly surprising since she managed to betray not a hint of nerves while gliding up to an ethereal pianissimo D-flat. Her woodwind-tinged instrument is slim with a healthy, even, vibrato and a dark central core.

She can really bite into the text when necessary and certainly isn’t afraid of going off the voice for the occasional dramatic emphasis. Her use of the text in the interview with Sharpless was particularly telling followed by a scorched-earth reading of “Che tua madre” that exploded into the most exquisite emotional torment.

Butterfly 2She was aided by her “Dolore” played by Michael Alspaugh who at 5 years old managed the tremendously professional feat of never drawing undue attention to himself. (And that was in spite of the production’s assigning him an awkward bit of business at the final curtain that no one his age could pull off.).

Music Director James Conlon led the LA Opera Orchestra in a reading so full-bodied that it was apparent he had to put the brakes on a few times. I have never been so aware of the careful architecture of the first act love duet and how it restarts itself from nearly the same musical point only to reach a larger symphonic and emotional climax each time.

The lighting plot of Rick Fisher was mostly naturalistic in depicting a dry “Dust Bowl” atmosphere in the second act. Earlier, a crimson sunset blazed for the the Bonze’s denunciation.

Particularly for the participation of Ms. Martínez, this is a Butterfly that deserves to be seen for its subtle command of storytelling and the punch of its most emotional moments.

Photos by Ken Howard for LA Opera.

  • phoenix

    enjoyed reading this review, Corwin, particularly ‘the careful architecture of the first act love duet and how it restarts itself from nearly the same musical point only to reach a larger symphonic and emotional climax each time.’ Butterfly is my favorite symphonic tone poem.
    -- At first glance right popped up, looking at the picture at the head of this thread -- for a split-second I thought it was Kitty Carlisle as Cio-cio-san (no offence intended to the wonderful Martinez!)

    • phoenix

      gross typo error putting Corwin up there -- my apologies to Patrick Mack, the author of this review -- you know, my dislike for Corwin’s Devereux review has gotten out of hand.

      • Uh … just wondered why you needed to point out that you “disliked” Corwin’s review so much.

        • phoenix

          I mistakenly mentioned Corwin as the author of this review. I had been re-reading his Devereux review before I commented on this thread. Corwin is an excellent writer and I have enjoyed many of his reviews, but not the Devereux review. I had my mind on Corwin so I mistakenly put Corwin’s name in my first comment on this Butterfly thread instead of the true author Mack, whose review I (at least consciously) enjoyed much more.
          -- Why did I dislike Corwin’s Devereux review? (1) I just don’t understand going to a performance and scrutinizing every aspect of it with such cold rationality -- yet not express anything (that I interpreted) as spontaneous enthusiasm throughout the article. If a writer feels obliged to take a performance apart into such detail, then write your article as a tale in itself, in such a way that you grab and keep the reader’s (my) attention (using humor, topical, anecdotal, etc.); and (2) This may be something probably only I noticed, but since Ivy wants to know -- Ivy, who has written some great reviews herself -- I am not going to hold back from. There is an aloof, somewhat stuffy, impersonal feeling I get from reading Corwin in this Devereux writ, as if he is speaking from the pulpit or representing some kind of prominent establishment. I find it glaringly obvious because in his more lively reviews he also speaks with authority, but with the authority of someone who truly feels & believes what he is writing -- and when that happens he makes no bones about it -- the message comes strong, clear and sincerely real -- but such is not the case with the Deveruex review.
          -- James Jordan’s linked review is much more timely & believable than the calculated quality I get from Corwin’s Devereux review -- in spots Corwin gets almost as sanctionally gushy as the Met’s publicity office, or even worse, parts of it could have been written by a singer’s publicist. You don’t need a Masters Degree to tell when a writer is truly enthusiastic or when he is trying to (gild the lily) compensate for liabilities in a performance.
          -- I am not trying to start a feud with Corwin (or any of his supporters). I come to this site to read the reviews. The excellent writers on this site and others, like great composers, sometimes I enjoy their work and othertimes I don’t. There is no composer I am wholeheartedly fond of all his works, likewise there is no writer I am always fond of all of their articles.

          • Well that’s certainly a lengthy explanation of why you disliked his review. But if you disliked it so much idk why you didn’t comment on it in that thread, rather than offhandedly mentioning it in this thread, but with this by-line of “my dislike of Corwin’s review had gotten out of hand.”

            Just seems like a rather elaborate of making your dislike of something known.

            • phoenix

              -- You are the only person who asked me why I disliked it. Most people care about my opinion so I usually don’t elaborate, but you are an influential & respected writer: you asked me why I disliked it on this thread, so I answered (perhaps too elaborately) your question on this thread. Off topic? Yes, but I wanted to give you as complete an explanation as I could in direct reply to the comment wherein you asked your question.

            • phoenix

              CORRECTION -- another typo omission: ‘most people DON’T care about my opinion.’ Sorry about that, Ivy

          • With all the due respect, phoenix, that is one of the most pretentious posts I’ve read in a long while.

            • phoenix

              Thanks much for the compliment. So glad you enjoyed it! I have succeeded in dropping my pompous Eastern Egg in the time honored tradition of critique parterrian pomposity. Only someone like you would appreciate how difficult it was for me to construct all those phrases & try to put them together.
              -- Now, onto more important matters. I heard of Oksana Kramareva when she was on Operalia, but yesterday Sveriges radio broadcast her in Ballo, the first full length opera I have heard her in. Liked her a lot:
              Here she is singing Lisa’s aria from Queen of Spades:

            • You’re most welcome, phoenix, though I doubt it was all that difficult for you to construct all those phrases. LOL

              Now, to listen to this Oksana Kramareva.

  • gustave of montreal

    Butterfly is audacious for its time, its about a paedophile sailor and his pimp His Excellency Consul Sharpless.


  • meowiaclawas

    Thank you for the review, Patrick. You took issue with some business that happened at the final curtain. What was it?

    • Patrick Mack

      ‘Dolore’ first discovers his mother dead and takes up the knife she used to kill herself as well as the American flag she had near her. By the time Pinkerton runs into the room, just before the curtain, the boy is cornered against the far wall and appears to be confronting him with the knife in one hand and the flag in the other.
      It made so little sense on an emotional or dramatic level for a 5-year old to do any of this. To say nothing of the relatively short time he’s given to react to the death of his mother and then not to be pleased at finally seeing his father?
      Luckily it was just over very quickly.

      • armerjacquino

        How would he know it’s his father?

        You saw it and I didn’t, of course, but as you’ve described it it sounds rather exciting and chilling.

        • Patrick Mack

          It would only make sense that Cio-Cio San has been building him up to this moment since he was little. He did wait up for him with Mama and he’s the only occidental around.

          • armerjacquino

            He’s seen Sharpless before though, right? I can see a kid who is already traumatised by seeing his mother dead reacting very defensively to someone he’s never seen before bursting in shouting.

            Plus, of course, beyond whether or not anyone finds it credible, it’s an incredibly striking image.

            • Patrick Mack

              there just isn’t enough music to bring this complicated concept off and it came off as feeble and clumsy. Also it’s hard to make an adorable 5 yr. old menacing even if he is armed. Luckily it was over quickly. Also, in this production Sharpless was Asian just by accident of casting. Well, no accident really the guy had a phenomenal voice.

        • gustave of montreal

          his eurasian looks

          • armerjacquino

            Yeah, you didn’t understand the question.

  • Camille

    Patrick Mack, was she still suffering from her cold at the performance you attended?
    She sang through it very well but the voice seemed unable to expand too much, but a small price to pay in order to hear her lovely and very intelligent take on Butterfly. Hoping we will se her again before too long.

    • Patrick Mack

      My Dear Camille, Ms. Martinez appeared to be in excellent voice and no announcement was made otherwise. I didn’t discern anything amiss and I had just seen her in Pagliacci a couple months back. She’s my new diva.

      • Camille

        Thank you for your reply, Patrick Mack. I hadn’t expected one so had not yet seen it.

        When the stage manager walked out that night, and I WAS expecting that, and announced that Ms Martinez was sick with a cold I was going to cut her lot of slack, what with all she had been through in the past ten days. Aside from just a little bit of carefulness with the voice, she delivered a full-fledged performance. A real artist. I hope she will be back soon and wish her the best of best of everything, for she merits it in my opinion.

        I don’t know that you may like the zarzuela genre, but her performance alongside PláDo from some years ago, from Salzburg, is just so lovely. It’s no wonder she won the Pepita Embil prize in Domingo’s Operalia competition. Born to sing.

        Glad you have a new diva!