In wrapping up its 60th season with the most-performed opera in the world's repertory, it would have been easy to replay one of West Bay Opera's nine previous productions of "Madama Butterfly."
Instead, the always inventive Palo Alto company chose to inject some new ways to understand the story, making it more compelling. It also brought together a strong, experienced foursome of principal singer-actors, produced a surprisingly lush orchestral sound with only 23 players, utilized some of Silicon Valley's cleverest computer-generated video and still imagery, and allowed its director to insert some well-acted silent pantomime to give a nuanced personality to a protagonist normally considered one of the most shameless cads in all opera.
Audiences may come for some of greatest tunes composer Giacomo Puccini ever wrote, but they'll quickly be engaged by the building dramatic tension crafted by stage director Eugene Brancoveanu.
Written in the first years of the 20th century, when America was beginning to flex its imperialist muscles in the Pacific, "Madama Butterfly" tells the story of a U.S. Navy officer stationed in Nagasaki, Japan. Lt. Pinkerton is oblivious to his callow, swaggering racism. His raging passion for 15-year-old Cio Cio San (Butterfly) leads him to lease a house for 999 years and marry her "until he can wed a real American wife". The American consul, Sharpless, warns Pinkerton that the young geisha is totally committed to him.
By the second act, three years later, the abandoned Butterfly (now with a 3-year-old boy she calls Sorrow), is destitute. Sharpless comes to say he has had a letter implying that Pinkerton was getting married and not likely to return. However, he cannot persuade Butterfly to marry a rich prince who wants her. Instead she tells Sharpless to relay that Pinkerton has a son.
Pinkerton and his new wife, Kate, come to take the boy back. Butterfly, in her anguish, chooses to "die with honor rather than live in shame" by stabbing herself just as Pinkerton returns.
The splendid cast features Russian-trained Olga Chernisheva, whose big, warm coloratura tones excelled in the big arias like "Un bel di vedremo" ("One fine day, we'll see") and the wrenching, beautiful final duet with Pinkerton. Veteran tenor David Gustafson has a strong, expressive vocal instrument that blends perfectly with Chernisheva. Both have sung these roles several times together at other venues.
Suzuki, Butterfly's long-suffering maid, is sung by Kristin Choi, who possesses a powerful mezzo voice. She'll reprise Suzuki next year with Washington National Opera. Baritone Igor Vieira brings compassion and wisdom to the role of Sharpless, with resonant tone and stage presence.
Tenor Michael Desnoyers sings Goro, the marriage broker and real estate operator. Kiril Havezov's strong bass baritone captured the role of Butterfly's angry Uncle Bonzo, who banishes her from Japanese society. Ryan Bradford looks the role of handsome Prince Yamadori but his voice needs a bit more heft.
Kate Pinkerton is sung by soprano Carolyn Bacon. This role was substantially augmented by the director's decision to turn the normally static, off-stage chorus intermezzo before the third act into a dramatic pantomime. In a well-acted flashback showing the receipt by Pinkerton of Sharpless' letter revealing the existence of the child, Kate learns for the first time about her husband's first "family." The self-indulgent, arrogant Pinkerton dissolves in regret for what he has done, even reaching for his service revolver perhaps to do himself in. Kate runs through a series of emotions, ultimately deciding to have them both go to Japan and adopt the boy. In the opera's final moments, traditional staging usually has Butterfly stab herself before Pinkerton's arrival. In this production, the actual stabbing takes place in his presence. While Pinkerton attempts unsuccessfully to restrain her, Butterfly reaches for his gun holster, removing the gun as the final crescendo of the opera is heard, and the curtain falls. This last directorial touch seems like an awkward overreach, but most of Brancoveanu's other interventions work well.
The creative team is led by general director and conductor Jose Luis Moscovich. The set staging is by Peter Compton, who had a triumph with West Bay's recent "Evgeny Onegin." His color palette suggests the flat tones of Japanese woodcut master Hiroshige. Frederic Boulay, projection designer, took some of the latest video software from Adobe to make a ship sail into the harbor, creating ripples on the water with ever-changing cloud patterns. It even permitted the falling leaves to descend with the pace of the music. Lighting designs by Edward Hunter also reflected the musical score's range of moods.
Pinkerton's shaggy orange-blonde wig didn't look like something a spit-and-polish Navy would permit. But it was echoed in the hairpiece worn by his 3-year-old offspring. This lad is strikingly portrayed with a confident panache by a 7-year-old girl, Zoe G. Lai.
Like several of Puccini's other tragic heroines, "Madama Butterfly" manages to bring out handkerchiefs to dab away the tears. Despite its sadness, it remains a work of great beauty and dramatic verity. Along with Mozart's "Abduction from the Seraglio" and Tchaikovsky's "Onegin," it completes a resoundingly memorable season for West Bay Opera.
What: West Bay Opera presents Puccini's "Madama Butterfly," sung in Italian with English supertitles.
When: Saturday, May 28 at 8 p.m.; Sunday, May 29 at 2 p.m.
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.
Info: Visit WBO or call 650-424-9999.