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A New And Improved 'Madame Butterfly' Lands On The LA Opera Stage

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Not all the familiar classics in heavy rotation on the world's major opera house stages are marked by elaborately sentimental pathos, but plenty of them are. And even among these many well-loved warhorses, Puccini's 1904 romantic tragedy Madame Butterfly stands out in particular as a heightened exemplar of...elaborately sentimental pathos.

Based on an otherwise forgotten American melodramatic stage play of the same name, Madame B.'s story of aggressive U.S. cultural and sexual imperialism in Meiji-era Japan has inspired numerous pop-culture knockoffs and homages over the last century. The female protagonist Cio-Cio San (who assumes the "Butterfly" moniker) is an immensely pitiable victim of the feckless American naval lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton, who has bought her hand in marriage from a local matchmaker, even as he blithely expects some day to leave her behind and take a permanent bride when he goes back home.

This new-to-Los Angeles production is a lot more fun to watch than the oddly static Butterfly that LA Opera presented only three years ago. Director Lee Blakeley and movement director Nicola Bowie smoothly position the performers in, out and around the rotating rustic abode created by scenic designer Jean-Marc Puissant. A lively supporting cast—including South Korean baritone Kihun Yoon as the sympathetic American consulate Sharpless who unsuccessfully tries to find a conscience in Pinkerton to appeal to, and Serbian mezzo Milena Kitic as Butterfly's devoted servant and confidante Suzuki—add emotional definition to the opera's central betrayal.

Italian tenor Stefano Secco delivers a Pinkerton so morally vacuous that the opening night audience cheerfully booed the character (certainly not Secco's performance) at the closing curtain call. The unmatched star here, though, is Puerto Rican soprano Ana Maria Martinez, as a Butterfly not timorous but naive in the immersion of her entire ego in what she learns, too late, has been a fictive union with the man who's sworn he loves her. In the opera's most famous aria, "Un bel di" ("Some fine day"), the dramatic irony in her guileless anticipation of Pinkerton's return to is especially heart-rending. As is her final act of desperation carried out in front of the son that she bore an unwitting Pinkerton after he first sailed away.

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This production isn't hesitant to paint Pinkerton's callous devastation of the woman he loves and then discards in a bright red, white and blue, as the American flag occupies a prominent place in Cio-Cio San's home once she makes the choice to devote herself to the visiting naval officer. Puccini's score, which incorporates both Japanese motifs and recurring strains of "The Star-Spangled Banner" into its idiomatically Italianate palette, is rendered with exceptional verve by LA Opera Music Director and conductor James Conlon

LA Opera's Madame Butterfly runs for five more performances at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion downtown.