"Were you bored?" I overheard a woman walking up the aisle say to her companion. "No," he answered, "I loved it." "Are you sure?" she replied. Boston Lyric Opera has just offered its third production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly since the millennium. Opening night sold out, so there's the irrefutable argument for repeating this potboiler, which combines Puccini's most sentimental and sadistic impulses. Poor Butterfly, the 15-year-old geisha victimized by imperialism, male chauvinism, and racism, hasn't a chance. But she's got unforgettable tunes, and BLO's sopranos have all played Cio-Cio San more for dignity than victimhood, though there's no escaping Puccini's creepy infatuation with suffering.
The latest Butterfly was New Jersey soprano Yunah Lee, singing the role for the 112th time. She's vocally powerful enough for the numerous climaxes (occasional harshness at the top compromised her bright timbre), yet refined enough to scale back. She's also an impressive, intricately detailed actress — not a wasted movement — though the greatest Butterflies convince you they're not acting. As American Lieutenant Pinkerton, tenor Dinyar Vania (another Jersey-ite) balanced tender-hearted lover and thoughtless heel. His voice shifted from fuzzy middle to ringing top, sometimes in imperfectly-tuned overdrive.
There were two exceptional performances in smaller roles: mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor, whose warm-voiced emotional transparency as Suzuki, Butterfly's loyal servant, contrasted with Lee's calculated effects, and Irish tenor Michael Colvin as Goro, the comic pimp-like "marriage broker." Baritone Weston Hurt was a vocally refined, understated consul Sharpless. Returning conductor Andrew Bisantz continues to weave nuanced musicality into an unforced sense of drama. The orchestra sang, though sometimes too loudly.
Stage director Lillian Groag has previously displayed for BLO odd mixtures of big ideas and gimmicky bits. Here, her idea was to have "heightened moments"— images projecting Butterfly's thoughts. The production began with Butterfly's father's ritual suicide — not in the libretto — a serviceable if heavy-handed foreshadowing of Puccini's tragic conclusion. But one "heightened moment" nearly ruined Puccini's most famous aria, Butterfly's "Un bel dì" — her conviction that Pinkerton will return: "One fine day we'll see a filament of smoke rising over the sea on the horizon." While Lee sang, Groag had Vania enter, smoking ("smoke on the horizon"?), sit down in Cio-Cio San's new Morris chair, then leave. Why should this familiar aria need extraneous literalization? Similarly, John Conklin's set had too many moving parts (descending flowers and boards) distracting from Puccini's true heightened moments. Directors and designers ought to know when to trust the music.
MADAMA BUTTERFLY :: Citi Performing Arts Center, 270 Tremont Street, Boston :: Through November 11 :: $30-$150 :: 617.482.9393 or blo.org