Cio-Cio and Carmen: what do you do with two tragic heroines who typify not just the sexist clichés, but also the soupy exotic fixations, of the Old-World West? Well, if you’re Heartbeat Opera, you take those two hapless maidens, doll them up in headphones and Hello Kitty merch, and push them to the front of a corrective double bill. 

In preparation for its third season, the young company labored to construct novel, scaled-back, and assuredly “high concept” versions of Butterfly and Carmen. The result, which ran last week at the Baruch Performing Arts Center to sold-out crowds, was a pair of visually expressive, if somewhat musically and conceptually uneven, reinventions for the culturally sensitive set. Geisha fared slightly better than gypsy.

The two productions featured different casts, musicians, and creative teams, but closed their respective runs on the same Sunday afternoon, allowing audiences the chance to compare adaptations. Butterfly went first. Modified by director Ethan Heard and music director Jacob Ashworth, this new production cut Puccini’s expansive tale of Oriental abandonment down in size, reducing his full orchestra to six pieces, narrowing the cast to its five principal characters, and changing the order of the three acts.

In his program notes, the director explains that the original work is ultimately “a fantasy invented by white men who knew very little of Japan, Japanese culture…and Japanese women.” His staging seeks to deconstruct this fantasy, by foregrounding its Orientalist underpinnings while pointing up the power imbalances binding a woman to her fate. We see all this unfold through the eyes of a young Asian-American boy (Noah Spagnola), who observes from his modern bedroom and opens the production by googling terms like “yellow face” and “geisha” on his laptop—perhaps to signal the contemporary stakes of these fictions.

This Butterfly opened slowly, shuffling the second act’s waiting scenes to the top of the show. When we first encounter the geisha Cio-Cio-San (Banlingyu Ban) and her equally stoic maid Suzuki (a muted Siobhan Sung), they are anticipating the return of her husband, American navy lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton (Mackenzie Whitney, punching up the sleaze), and that one fine day when all will be set right for the deserted women.

A flashback in the second act gives us what would normally be the start of the original’s more linear narrative: the meeting of Pinkerton and the 15-year-old geisha girl, her stylized introduction of the Japanese Way to her American visitors, and the famous love duet, here reimagined as an extended touristic predation of selfies and S&M, with Pinkerton actually hog-tying his new bride to her home. By the time Butterfly meets her end in act three, it’s clear that she is wilting under the weight of her two roles, subservient geisha fantasy and flesh-and-blood Japanese woman, and must therefore do away with both.

As Butterfly, Ban’s performance was exceedingly well acted and passionately played (her “Che tua madre” especially moving), if sometimes lacking the difficult vocal strength and color demanded of the title character. The men provide a bit more vocal charisma than the ladies, with baritone Matthew Singer breathing particular life into Sharpless and Jordan Weatherston Pitts lending his fine tenor to Goro.

Reid Thompson’s minimalist sets and Heard’s visual instincts deserve plaudits for successfully reducing grand-scale opera to the chamber-sized dimensions represented here: I didn’t love the sound of the Flower or Love duets, but I liked how they looked, with cascades of flower petals brightening the bleak stage and a restrictive webbing of cords tethering the Butterfly to her domestic prison.

Despite its abridgments, most of the musical hits are here. Butterfly isn’t a masterwork of complexity in terms of plot, but what makes the opera so memorable, and so poignant, is its evocative score, which can be spellbinding. One of its chief innovations is the way it brings traditional Japanese songs to the elephantine Italian stage. And at times, dare I say it, I found myself wishing the directors had taken just a little pleasure in Puccini’s original work and its lyricism, or found some joy in the show’s occasions for humor (part of the fun of Butterfly, after all, lies in seeing Caballé or Price or Tebaldi try to pull off “fifteen”), instead of simply zeroing in on the racism.

Nor are the Japanese characters the only flat tokens of the original: “Benjamin Franklin” Pinkerton and his hammy American patriotism are also caricatures of a sort, and Butterfly’s chats with Sharpless contain hidden ironies that are barely acknowledged in this re-staging. Ultimately, when you reach for accuracy and authenticity in an opera that makes little secret of its orientalist pastiche, you risk giving too much credit to an artwork that isn’t really about authenticity at all—or worse, by taking the political problems of a dated story completely seriously and at face value, you can easily wind up making “racist” seem somehow more racist.

Bizet’s gypsy romance Carmen offers a different kind of fantasy to viewers: a 19th-century French singspiel with dark verismo accords, featuring lusty bands of soldiers and smugglers, a dream mezzo role, and a chaste Madonna character to offset the femme fatale. For this retelling, director Louisa Proske focused her efforts on bringing “borders” to the fore. Set designer Kate Noll placed a literal fence center stage, and more figuratively, the action-packed production revolves around the boundary crossings of the main characters.

Lending even greater intimacy to their transgressions, the cast has been pruned to its four principals, though the instrumentalists (here scaled back to a sometimes dry-sounding six-piece ensemble led by music director Daniel Schlosberg and a little too much saxophone) also insert themselves in the action every so often.

I have been a fan of Proske’s chamber adaptations for some time: I really loved her brooding Lucia di Lammermoor for Heartbeat last year, for instance. Her gritty modern take on Bizet, however, felt less inspired to me. Rethinking the title character (Sishel Claverie) as a cell phone-carrying, Parliament-smoking, feminist radical and her scrappy cohort as punk renegades (one of them spray-painting “liberté” stage left, so we can know whose side we’re on), the director creates a world in which men dominate and lone-wolf females must be scrappy enough to resist.

No Frasquita and Mercedes in this outing. The overall effect, however, is that a normally colorful opéra comique is now male-dominated, dingy and gloomy, and stripped of all the jaunty panache that keeps the show from becoming too heavy.

Of course, for male-dominated, chamber-scale to work, we need strong, capable singing, and unfortunately there wasn’t much of it the evening I attended. Perhaps voices were tired at the end of a run, but as they switched between English dialogue and French airs, too often I felt shouted at by the leads. Playing the lovelorn and misguided officer Don José, Brent Reilly Turner was a dominating presence onstage, but gave little sense of what makes his character sympathetic and tragic; similarly the rakish toreador Escamillo (Ricardo Rivera), here reincarnated as a coke-sniffing outlaw, fell short of stealing our hearts as he supposedly steals Carmen’s. Claverie turned in a truly spirited performance as the gypsy seductress, but went slightly sharp whenever she wandered into her head register.

The surprise of the evening was soprano Jessica Sandidge’s Micaëla, who delivered a floating, sensitively phrased “Je dis que rien ne m’épouvante” that elicited the show’s first bravos from the audience. Encountering her also reminded me why these delicate moments are so vital to Bizet’s original score: they give us a chance to breathe between set pieces, and help us appreciate the dark emotional places the story goes.

Like this season’s Butterfly, Heartbeat’s Carmen plumbed the depths of the serious but with relatively little payoff à la fin: we must wait until the bitter end for Carmen, stabbed and bloody, to sing her famous Habanera for us. Yet wouldn’t it be nice if this aria had retained the seductive charm it usually carries in Act One—or if the production had rightly understood that sometimes, a bird is already rebellious enough.

Photos: Russ Rowland