‘Madama Butterfly’ pinned to painful production

Deborah and Edmond Szekely founded Rancho La Puerta in 1940 during an era when health farms were a novelty and sipping grapefruit juice instead of a martini was considered an oddity.

In his article in the Los Angeles Opera’s program, general manager Placido Domingo writes, “Robert Wilson’s dramatic and visionary conception of this work (“Madama Butterfly”) has been hailed as a modern classic.” Visionary it may be, but dramatic it is not. By reducing Puccini’s gorgeous masterpiece to its minimalist nadir, the emotion and mood are lost. Many in the audience at the Music Center were disappointed.

Wilson leaves much to the imagination, with a barren, backlit set and costumes that barely suggest that the opera takes place in Japan. There is no connection between the characters. They never touch and seldom even face each other. Most irritating are the ridiculous hand motions that the singers adopt.

Captain Pinkerton fakes a marriage to na├»ve Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly) and leaves for America with no intention of honoring the commitment. The second act always requires a handful of hankies, as Butterfly sees her lover’s ship arrive and expects his arrival. In a beautiful scene, Butterfly, her child and her maid, Suzuki, wait in the dark silently as the beautiful Puccini music is played. The spell is broken because the boy is required to prance about the stage.

The singers all do the best they can, but it is difficult to be believable when your hands must make strange gestures. Patricia Racette was particularly effective as Cio-Cio-San, especially in the second act where she manages to show some emotion. Marcus Haddock, as Pinkerton, looked embarrassed in his white robe, nevertheless sang well, but without sincerity. Vladimir Chernov, always reliable, was sympathetic as Sharpless, the consul. Stephen Cruz scampered about as Butterfly’s young son.

Peter Blanchet, as Goro, the matchmaker, was a caricature as were Wayne Tigges as the uncle and Andrew Wilkowske as a would-be lover.

The Los Angeles Opera Orchestra sounded fine under the direction of Don Ettinger. Wilson is credited with “direction, design and lighting design.” Alas!