BUTTERFLY

The opera season began on Thursday night with all the fixings: gala crowd,
sold-out house, Placido Domingo to sing, high-society supper afterwards.
Musically, too, the news wasn’t all bad. It wasn’t all good, either. This was the Music Center Opera’s second try at Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.”
The other one came during the company’s first season, in 1986, and the less
said the better. Version No. 2 suggested that the company still hasn’t quite
got the hang of the piece. As any opera buff will tell you, Puccini’s operas are all about singing, and
they’re very good of their kind. Perhaps the works don’t attain the
sophistication level of, say, his illustrious predecessor, Giuseppe Verdi. But
they display an uncommon gift for using the human throat, and the human
lungs, to project a sense of high drama. “Butterfly” has its great tunes,
but it also has all the material in between those high spots, music that curls
itself with high skill around the sad and helpless characters and the poignant
drama of their destruction. All that being so, we can easily overlook one more important earmark of these
Puccini almost-masterworks, that even with superior singing they don’t perform
themselves. The element most lacking in Thursday’s performance was the sense
of momentum that a superior conductor can bring to the work, without which
even the best singers are lost in a sea of apathy. Randall Behr, the evening’s
conductor, seemed unable to generate that momentum. Long sections seemed to slip by without sense of shape; the long love duet that
ends the first act, to cite an egregious example, made these ears aware of the
sense of interminable repetition, less aware of the subtle buildup of tender
passion threaded through the music. It was hard, and at some moments
impossible, to get the sense that the singers were at all interested in what
they were about. There was nothing particularly wrong with Randall Behr’s leadership; there just
wasn’t enough right. Behr is the company’s resident conductor, and is slated
to conduct three of the season’s eight productions. Suspicions arise that
perhaps the company might try a little harder in the podium department. (Such
suspicions, of course, will be temporarily allayed by the arrival of Charles
Dutoit for tonight’s “The Trojans.”) Meanwhile, back on the stage. Placido Domingo was the one-time-only Pinkerton;
he heads for the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of “Girl of the Golden
West,” with his place taken for the remainder of the “Butterfly” run by his
protege Juan Antonio Pita. Domingo at 50 remains a phenomenon; nobody can
touch him for sheer, animal vibrance of tone which he can produce over a
phenomenal range of volume. As an actor he remains a clunk: one arm doing the
semaphore gestures, the other hanging useless as if belonging to someone else.
The real acting is in his singing; as many times as Domingo has sung this one
role he could still, on this occasion, command that heartbroken throb in the
last act, when the brutality of his actions finally confronts him. The Butterfly was Maria Ewing’s first-ever; Los Angeles seems to have become
her tryout town for new roles. This did not, this first time out, seem like
the role for her. She sounded like what she is, a retreaded mezzo dazzling in
some dramatic soprano roles but out of her element in the lyric repertory. Ian
Judge’s stage direction had given her some interesting stage tricks to divert
awareness that she is hardly the wounded adolescent of Puccini’s drama, but
the heaviness of her voice (apart from many moments under the pitch) betrayed
her more than once. The cast was filled out decently with Thomas Allen’ strong, sympathetic
Sharpless and Stephanie Vlahos’ somewhat hooty Suzuki. And a tiny tot named
Stephen M. Gilbert, in the silent but surefire role of Trouble (rechristened
“Sorrow” in the supertitles) stole the show by just toddling across the
stage a couple of times. John Gunter’s all-purpose indoor-outdoor set right out of Sunset Magazine, a
sort of Malibu beachhouse with the Jacuzzi just out of view, was, let’s say,
strange. A garish red frame upstage, setting off the background as if through
an enormous picture window, completed the illusion. In the pit, the Los
Angeles Chamber Orchestra seemed a little lackadaisical at times about
togetherness. It was obvious that the upcoming Berlioz opera had gotten the
bulk of the rehearsal time this week. THE FACTS What: Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” presented by the Los Angeles Music Center
Opera. Where: Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. in downtown Los
Angeles. When: 8 p.m., Sept. 15, 18, 21, 24; 2 p.m. Sept. 29. Starring: Maria Ewing and Juan Antonio Pita, with Randall Behr conducting. Behind the scenes: directed by Ian Judge, designed by John Gunter and Liz da
Costa. Tickets: $17-$85; for information call 213 972-7211. Our rating: **