Before there was the novel "Memoirs of a Geisha" or the Broadway smash musical "Miss Saigon," there was "Madame Butterfly," an opera with a tragic love story about an innocent young geisha and an American naval officer.
"Butterfly" has all the elements found in Italian grand opera such as a journey to a magical and mysterious land, a complicated love affair that’s fueled by a full moon and a dramatic finale that involves a spectacular death scene.
Mounting a production of this classic is always a win-win situation for an opera company’s ticket sales because it fills the theater with season subscribers and first-time opera novices who want to discover the joy of live opera. During a real full moon and lunar eclipse (Nov. 28), the Los Angeles Opera presented a new production of Giacomo Puccini’s most popular work for a sold-out audience filled with such like-minded, opera romantics.
"I am like the moon-goddess," Butterfly sings to the officer in act one, "the little goddess of the moon who comes down at night from the bridge of heaven."
This production originated in San Francisco in 1997, but it’s the first time Los Angeles audience will see it. This doesn’t mean ’what’s old is new again’ is a good thing. The minimalist set is a large wooden platform with over-sized paper sliding screens (fusuma) that are arranged to give the illusion of the story’s location, Nagasaki, Japan. The audience is supposed to imagine the scenes that are described in the libretto: a landscaped Japanese harbor with Butterfly’s little wood home built high on a hill where she watches her lover return from sea. In this set, Butterfly stands behind a folded Ikea paper screen. Early on, I realized this production was going to have to rely on the vocal performances because visually it fell flat.
In the title role, Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka offers a powerful vocal interpretation of the angelic butterfly, Cio-Cio-San. Dyka delivers a full rich vocal sound that demands to be heard no matter where your seat is located in the auditorium. She’s not interested in making you think she’s a teenage geisha, but rather a woman who is in love and will do anything if scorned by it. Dyka’s performance is the best things about this production that boasts some of the most difficult arias in the soprano repertoire.
"Un bel di," (One Beautiful Day), is this opera’s most famous aria and although Dyka does attempt to sing the lyrics with an innocent tone, there’s such a strong vocal approach to her technique that any attempt to achieve this youthful la dolce vita is masked by her delicious vocal maturity.
Dyka made her LA Opera debut last season as Tatyana in "Eugene Onegin," a role where this meaty style of vocal technique is expected. To some this method is not appropriate for a young geisha in love, but for me this is what I enjoy most from grand Italian opera. Let the Diva stand center stage and sing!
Lost in Oksana Dyka’s shadow is Brandon Jovanovich as the faithless Pinkerton, the US military officer who is unworthy of receiving the heart from this devoted geisha. There’s no real chemistry between the two singers when they’re on stage, so it’s difficult to genuinely believe the moon has connected them. The story follows the title character on the two most important days of her young life -- the day of her wedding and the day her husband returns after three years’ absence.
Two standouts appearing in secondary roles were by American bass-baritone Eric Owens as Sharpless and mezzo-soprano Milena Kitic as the loyal chambermaid, Suzuki. "I want the whole fragrance of spring in here," Butterfly sings under a shower of cherry blossoms. This "Tutti i fiori," (All the flowers) scene between Butterfly and Suzuki was beautifully sung and most welcomed because the showering of flowers added a much needed spark of color to the dark, minimalist set. LA Opera audiences last saw Kitic as "Carmen" in 2004.
Resident conductor Grant Gershon offered support to these strong vocal performances, while being faithful to Puccini’s delicate score. "Coro a bocca chiusa" (Humming Chorus) was especially moving for the orchestra and offstage chorus ensemble that serenaded Butterfly, her child and Suzuki when they begin the long wait for Pinkerton to return.
Butterfly’s final, "Con onor muore," (To die with honor) is always an emotional roller coaster for the audience if it’s properly sung. The frantic image of Butterfly blindfolding her child before she commits hari-kari is terribly sad and one the quintessential moments that makes opera grand. Dyka saved everything for this final aria and focused her vocal line right into the heart of each audience member-just like the point of the sword she holds in the air. It is one of Puccini’s most powerful arias and because of Dyka’s artistry, is the reason why this production must be seen.
When all of the elements of live theater come together -- orchestra, composer and performer -- the result is a beautiful musical experience and the epitome of grand opera. To witness this kind of moment in live performance is as rare as an eclipse or a full moon. Luckily, the audience and I were there to experience all three.