Taking chances

By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  November 7, 2006

Program annotator Michael Steinberg refers to the constantly changing, kaleidoscopic nature of the Schoenberg. It’s like a carnival, with a dancing energy, the sounds of the crowd, the rides, the barkers, dance bands and marching bands, all overlapping. Also passages of great delicacy — lovers sneaking into the shadows during the slow movement.

The entire evening was a marvel of playing and planning. I’m sorry anyone missed it. Or any part of it.

Neither risk nor daring was involved in Boston Lyric Opera’s choice for its 30th-season opener: Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (at the Shubert Theatre through November 14). Not that there was anything wrong with the production, which was admirable. Keith Lockhart whipped the orchestra into excellent shape; the playing has passion and tonal refinement. Colin Graham, director of some of the BLO’s best productions, chose understatement and honest emotion over melodramatic excess; his blocking is both pointed and (mostly) natural, with numerous telling gestures derived from kabuki theater. Neil Patel, who designed the stark Carmen I liked so much at the Santa Fe Opera last summer, created an elegant set like the inside of a red-lacquer bento box, with sliding Japanese panels and minimal furniture. David C. Woolard designed attractive and authentic-looking costumes. (This production was, I gather, originally done for the Minnesota Opera and Opera Theatre of St. Louis.)

The cast is a group of singers with solid regional-opera credentials who know their way around a stage. Tenor Gerard Powers (Pinkerton) makes a good-looking Ugly American — self-centered and thoughtlessly racist. At the very end he shows his deep regret over abandoning his young Japanese bride by flinging himself onto the floor (one of director Graham’s few phony touches). His voice is a solid but not yet a glamorous instrument; he needs to modulate his volume level. But his technique is secure, and his pumping-iron climaxes don’t distort his tone. Baritone Carlos Archuletta is a sympathetic Sharpless, Honduran mezzo Melina Pineda a recessive but equally sympathetic Suzuki. Tenor Matthew Dibattista (the busybody Goro), baritone Joseph Valone (Butterfly’s wealthy suitor, Yamadori), and mezzo Erica Brookhyser (Kate Pinkerton) all make good impressions.

Butterfly is soprano Kelly Kaduce (who sang the title role in the BLO’s Thaïs last season). Opening night, she let one high note at the climax of her entrance scene slip shrilly out of tune, but otherwise she sang with impressive, full-voiced warmth. With Lockhart’s help, she shaped “Un bel dí” into a real monologue, an almost conversational expression of evolving feeling; it wasn’t just a showpiece. She emphasizes Butterfly’s dignity, not her vulnerability. Except for some “Three Little Maids from School” giggles, she avoids the clichés of Western divas imitating a Japanese teenager, and she’s particularly skillful with Graham’s kabuki-inspired gestures.

Yet until Butterfly’s final scene, nothing quite caught fire. Everything moved steadily along (except for one of the two supertitle screens, which gave out during the second act). Then, suddenly, Kaduce found the searing voice that came from inside the character (had she been saving herself for this?), and her suicide was both hair-raising and affecting.

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