In Orange County last November, a production of Madama Butterfly opened on a stageful of bustle: a consular office in old Nagasaki with secretaries at typewriters, young Japanese clerks pushing papers around, girls singing “Quanti fiori!” with nary a flower in sight, Lieutenant Pinkerton and marriage broker Goro hot and heavy in negotiations — all in coordination with Puccini’s busy, contrapuntal music. At the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion last week, the Los Angeles Opera’s Madama Butterfly began on an empty stage, the figures of Pinkerton and Goro picked out in strong lighting against an equally strong background of color, further identified by the contrast in the way each man held his hands, and with nothing else onstage except a flat landscape punctuated in the distance by a small bridge over a stream. The Orange County Butterfly was Francesca Zambello’s 5-year-old production from Houston, restaged for Opera Pacific by Garnett Bruce; the L.A. Opera’s was Robert Wilson’s 1993 creation for the Paris Opéra de Bastille, rebuilt here for its North American premiere. Having seen both productions within three months, and been bowled over both times, I find myself obliged to retract a lifetime’s worth of negative estimates of the value of Puccini’s exquisite tragedy.
Wilson’s Butterfly soars, of course, as much in coordination with its own inner music as with Puccini’s; yet the remarkable effect is to leave you closer to its personalities than you might have believed possible. Unlike current and recent smart-ass directors who must reinvent story lines to accord with their advanced visions of an opera’s “true meaning” (names on request), Wilson’s way seems in general to be one of subtraction rather than addition. His sole Butterfly addition has been to create an enhanced stage presence for the boy cast as “Trouble,” the leftover son of Butterfly and Pinkerton’s romance, but this has been so artfully done — and enacted so charmingly by 10-year-old James Prival — as to disarm complaint.
Verónica Villarroel was the opening-night Butterfly, not her first time here as a “sweet and sad” heroine, if you remember 1994’s ill-fated El Gato Montès; the voice is now a little less sweet, perhaps, but she stood well on opening night and captured Wilson’s lighting. (Two others will assume the role during the 14-performance run, Angela Maria Blasi and Xiu Wei Sun.) John Matz was the nicely lyrical Pinkerton; Susanna Poretsky, the rich-voiced Suzuki. Greg Fedderly, as Goro, mastered best of all a stylized “Japanese” walk; I could swear he was on wheels. Kent Nagano’s musical leadership, in fact, put the whole evening on wheels, smooth and well on track.
The “inner music” is most aptly defined through Wilson’s vocabulary of body movement, a quantity always cherishable in musical theater, but something intrinsic and unique in his language. Memorable moments abound; just to observe this one quality — how it works even on a stage as large as ours, and how it interlocks with constant color changes in lighting — would be worth a return visit. Take one small but crucial moment: the meeting near the end between Butterfly and Kate Pinkerton, the innocent cause of her ruination. Just the contrast in the two women’s holding of their arms — Butterfly stiff, Kate beckoning and natural — spells out the culture barrier, the uncrossable bridge so clearly defined at that moment. Take that further, as Wilson implicitly demands, and recognize what that bridge will symbolize in the future tragedy when that beautiful boy of Butterfly and Pinkerton’s loving is forcefully carried into the American life his philandering father and his new, insignificant wife have come to represent. You don’t get that from any dime-a-dozen Butterfly production; I did, from Bob Wilson.
Wilson’s operatic repertory is small, because his choices fall only upon works that generate that kind of resonance. I ache to see Einstein on the Beach once — or 10 times — again. His technique is famous, and sometimes ridiculed by nonbelievers, for the rehearsal time he spends on the sort of detail I’ve tried to describe; I watched him once, in Rome for the Civil Wars that Los Angeles never got, working for three hours on the lighting on a hand. I worry, therefore, at the news that the Los Angeles Opera will revive this Madama Butterfly in three or four years, but that Wilson will not be here to supervise its preparation.
Jon Vickers’ performance as Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes comes close to being the finest single operatic performance on video; it was available on laser disc and now has been re-formatted on a Kultur DVD. The performance is from London’s Royal Opera in 1981, conducted by Colin Davis and directed by Elijah Moshinsky; it is therefore the same production that came here during the Olympic Arts Festival in 1984. Even Britten, who had written the part for Peter Pears, was obliged to accept the Vickers performance as the more complete fulfillment of this harrowing, tragic role.
You get it from the start, that amazing throb that epitomizes defiance and helplessness at the inquest into the death of his first ’prentice. “What harbor shelters peace . . .?” — is there a vocal line of greater desperation anywhere else in music? (Yes, perhaps in Schubert’s Die Winterreise, but elsewhere?) Peter Grimes has become an essential opera, and there have been excellent performances since Vickers’ time, even here. Yet this DVD, with the fine Ellen Orford of Heather Harper and the sturdy Balstrode of Norman Bailey, is also an essential part of an operatic collection.
So is Alban Berg’s Lulu, which has yet to make it to these precincts. (Don’t hang by your thumbs.) It’s interesting enough that a new DVD of the work (not the first) is of a performance from Britain’s Glyndebourne Festival, shrine of great Mozart and Monteverdi; mountains do get to move now and then. This is also a tremendous presentation: Christine Schäfer in an exact mix of kitten and tiger, Kathryn Harries as a sad old blunderbuss of a Countess Geschwitz, Andrew Davis leading the strong, well-paced performance I would not have expected from him 10 years ago. Truly amazing, the operatic repertory currently available on DVD. Robert Wilson? For starters, there is Gluck’s Alceste from Paris, directed by Wilson, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, with Anne Sofie von
Otter in the title role; who could ask for