When I reviewed Miss Saigon in May of this year, I had never seen Madame Butterfly, the opera that inspired the musical. Having sat through the new production of Puccini’s masterpiece at LA Opera, I still haven’t seen Madame Butterfly.
Set in turn-of-the-century Nagasaki, B.F. Pinkerton (Brandon Jovanovich) arranges via a marriage broker (Rodell Rosel) his betrothal to Cio-Cio-San (Oksana Dyka), believing that such relationships are easily made and dispensed with. What he doesn’t count on is Cio-Cio-San falling madly in love with him, renouncing her religion, and converting to Christianity, which turns her family against her. Pinkerton ultimately leaves, and several years go by before he returns to Nagasaki -- with his American wife. They hope to return to the United States with the son Cio-Cio-San bore after he left.
Along with La Boheme, Madame Butterfly is considered a foolproof opera. The music is so gorgeous and the story so accessible that it would be difficult to ruin it. Congratulations are in order then for director Ron Daniels who has put together the most lifeless, unromantic, and boring opera production I have ever seen. If this were my first ever exposure to the art form, I’d never return.
Let’s start with the casting. Cio-Cio-San is the delicate butterfly of the title. While Ms. Dyka can sing beautifully, fragile she isn’t. Milena Kitic, who plays Cio-Cio-San’s servant, Suzuki, is physically what I imagine; when the two are together, Ms. Dyka towers over her. As for the two main characters, there isn’t a shred of chemistry or heat between between Ms. Dyka and Mr. Jovanovich. Nothing suggests that these two people are head over heels for one another. It doesn’t help that in the love duet they sing more to the audience than to each other. Since most of the performances are played that way, I can only assume this was Mr. Daniels’ call.
In the second act when Pinkerton finally returns, Cio-Cio-San waits and watches the ship to see when he will arrive. Puccini has written gorgeous music for this sequence, but Mr. Daniels just has our heroine stand perfectly still with her back to the audience while the ship is projected on a scrim in back and lights go on and off to mark the passing of time. This is a rather long piece of music and the opportunity to do something – or even anything – with this section was more than a missed opportunity. It was the final element that sank this production.
Spoiler alert: Cio-Cio-San kills herself when she can’t be with the man she loves or the child she bore by him. The one thing I can relate to in this production was her desire to die. Had the knife been in my hand, I would have made the same decision.