- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 3, 2001

The Washington Opera's new production of Giacomo Puccini's beloved "Madama Butterfly" marks a daring and largely successful departure from business as usual.
"Butterfly" fans accustomed to loads of exotic eye-candy and yards of billowing Oriental silks will be startled by this innovative, minimalistic, yet visually opulent production designed by Boris F. Kudlicka for Warsaw's Teatr Wielki-Opera Narodowa. It is directed here by Polish film director Mariusz Trelinski.
Debuted in Warsaw in 1999, this production probably will produce as much discussion in musical Washington as anything seen yet. Fortunately, Mr. Trelinski avoids the pitfalls of modern directors who update everything from Shakespeare to Verdi in order to make it all more relevant for modern audiences who, it is supposed, are so dull-witted they cannot relate to any work written or composed, say, before 1980. Rather than dunning us with hideous postmodern costuming, self-conscious parody or attention-grabbing stage shtick, Mr. Trelinski simply re-imagines "Butterfly" as Japanese Kabuki theater. This changes everything.
The production transforms the stage into an impressionistic amalgam of bays, inlets, floating docks and angular, templelike structures that seem to float in the air instead of employing brilliant sets festooned with lacquered furniture and Japanese rice-paper lanterns. Background colors and costumes are predominantly reds, whites and blues to symbolize the underlying American influence on the opera and also simplify the visual context of the setting. Silently, unobtrusive moving screens of black and beige conjure up the passage of time. The overall color scheme highlights, yet does not detract from the characters onstage. This visual harmony is occasionally interrupted by a startling image a huge, red warrior mask in Act I and a white, neon disc supported by vengeful gods in Act III that heightens the sense of drama. Otherwise, scenes and actions are highly symbolic and ritualized.
The characters, aside from the Americans, move in the slow, stylized manner of Kabuki actors and use grand theatrical gestures to express emotion. The Japanese characters are costumed in simple silks, and the women assume a low, subservient posture in keeping with 19th-century attitudes concerning dominance and submission. The American characters are costumed, somewhat less successfully, in simple white tunics. This plays down their military backgrounds while providing a contrast to the more complex Japanese dress code. Mr. Trelinski's "Butterfly" is conceptualized less as a Western work of art than as one with a Japanese heart and soul.
Although the minimalist staging of this opera will startle some audience members at the opening curtain, most soon will warm to the production. It is logical and beautiful in an entirely unexpected way. Perhaps, most of all, the simple settings focus attention where it needs to be on the characters and Puccini's gorgeous, Debussy-tinged score, acted and sung by a first-rate cast.
At the top of the list is Chilean soprano Veronica Villarroel's Cio-Cio-San. Miss Villarroel is absolutely breathtaking. Singing from the slightly crouched position required of her character, a young geisha who imagines that she has been married forever to an exotic American Navy officer, she is nonetheless able to express the full range of musical emotion. She creates, with her rich, honeyed voice, a lovely, noble creature who remains faithful to her ideals until the bitter end. This is an underplayed performance, and it adds depth and pathos to a character that can be too easily dismissed as two-dimensional.
As her opposite, the caddish Navy Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton (tenor Marcus Haddock) understands, as Cio-Cio-San does not, that his "marriage" is only going to last as long as his ship remains in his port of call. Mr. Haddock's Pinkerton is infatuated with Cio-Cio-San's beauty but does not fully realize the depth of the commitment including her conversion to Christianity that she has made. As portrayed by Mr. Haddock, Pinkerton, with his unthinking loutishness, merely adds to the nobility of the simple-hearted Cio-Cio-San. It's tough to sing a character as unsympathetic as this one, but Mr. Haddock does well with his rich, well-supported tenor voice. He creates some measure of sympathy for the clueless Pinkerton, who only realizes at the last second the awful thing that he has done.
Russian baritone Andrey Breus is solemn and sympathetic as Sharpless, the American consul. Functioning as a Greek chorus of one, Sharpless is the conscience that Pinkerton does not have and the seasoned diplomat who has a profound knowledge of the foreign people with whom he works. Neither Pinkerton nor Cio-Cio-San listens to his warnings, and both pay a high price for this in the end. Mr. Breus has just the right voice for this part. His baritone carries the proper authority without being overbearing, and his intonation and diction are impeccable.
Lesser roles are nicely sung. As Goro, the mischievous marriage-broker, tenor Anthony Laciura is effective if somewhat hyperactive. Chinese bass-baritone Sun Yu is effectively menacing in his brief Act I appearance as the Bonze. And baritone James Shaffran is affecting in his short, unhappy turn as Yamadori, Cio-Cio-San's spurned suitor.
The Washington Opera Orchestra is playing at its symphonic best under the baton of Renato Palumbo, although the orchestral blend occasionally buried the male singers on opening night. The offstage and onstage choruses sang professionally and well when you could hear them.

***1/2
WHAT: The Washington Opera in "Madama Butterfly"
WHERE: Kennedy Center Opera House, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NW
WHEN: 7 p.m. Monday; 8 p.m. Thursday and Nov. 13, 14, 16, 17; and 2 p.m. Nov. 11
TICKETS: $63 to $280
PHONE: 202/295-2400 or online at www.dc-opera.org
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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