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A Down-to-Earth 'Butterfly' at Los Angeles Opera

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Opera diehards and dabblers alike tend to recognize in Puccini's "Madame Butterfly" a perfect embodiment of all those clichés about the emotionally overwrought, musically sweeping over-the-top grand Italian tradition. The high melodrama in its weepy story of a helpless Japanese geisha girl seduced and then abandoned by a callous American naval lieutenant has inspired countless popular culture adaptations, from Broadway hits to movie thrillers to a Weezer theme album. Evidently an anti-imperialist soap opera of this kind was just what the culture ordered.

The straightforward "Butterfly" production that Los Angeles Opera is debuting at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion this season moves a bit too heavily on its feet to jerk every last tear in the house, its characters more often arranged in static set pieces than animated in a convincingly modulated show of love won and lost. But what the performers lack in physical demonstrativeness and interpersonal dynamism they largely make up for in vocal power.

Oksana Dyka in the title role of Cio-Cio-San, the birth name of the geisha rechristened Madame Butterfly, delivers her two main second act arias with overwhelming passion and desperation tempered with an almost convincing naïveté about the betrayal that everyone around her knows is now her fate. Tenor Brandon Jovanovich's Lieutenant Pinkerton is less a charismatically devious scoundrel than a thoughtless hedonist, oblivious rather than indifferent to the personal devastation he wreaks on his temporary Japanese wife. As the American consul Sharpless, who warns Pinkerton against using Cio-Cio-San's heart as a plaything and then unsuccessfully tries to inform Butterfly of her desertion, Eric Owens embodies both compassionate wisdom and the muddled cautiousness of the career bureaucrat.

Under Grant Gershon's baton the LA Opera orchestra sounded lively and idiomatic, especially during a second act interlude when Butterfly silently watches Pinkerton's ship arrive back in port after several years' absence.

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LA Opera's "Madame Butterfly" plays tonight and Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. and next Sunday afternoon at 2 p.m.