Madama Butterfly
Review by Willard Manus

Robert Wilson's production of Puccini's MADAMA BUTTERFLY has become an L.A. Opera Co. mainstay. Seen previously in 2004 and 2006, the production was mounted yet again this fall, starring for the first time Chinese soprano Liping Zhan. Zhan, Wilson's first choice when he premiered MADAMA in Paris thirteen years ago, has mastered the director's difficult style--physical stillness paired with impassioned vocalizing.
Wilson, who also designed the set and lights--and no doubt had a hand in choosing the costumes--has put his unmistakable stamp on the opera. In a way, it's his MADAMA, not Puccini's or even Zhan's. His minimalist vision dominates the stage, which has almost no set pieces or props, just stark geometric shapes poised against a multi-hued backdrop glowing with evening-sky radiance.

MADAMA is a love story, but Wilson never allows the lovers (Franco Farina is B.F. Pinkerton) to embrace or even touch. Every move they--and the other characters--make is choreographed, tightly controlled. The characters resemble puppets, until they open their mouths to sing. Their emotions not only pour out but are made larger and fuller by the contrast with their restricted body language.

Zhang started out singing somewhat tightly and tentatively, but by Act Two she had relaxed into the role of Cio-Cio and began vocalizing with heartstopping beauty and intensity. Farina, physically miscast as Pinkerton (he's too hulking a figure), just about managed to hold his own, but there were commendable contributions from Stephen Powell as Sharpless and Catherine Keen as Suzuki. Andrea Silverstrelli as The Bonze and Erica Brookyser as Kate Pinkerton stood out as well.

This month L.A. Opera will bring back another company favorite, CARMEN by Georges Bizet. Starring as the fiery Gypsy vamp is Viktoria Vizin, making her local debut. (The Chicago Tribune hailed her as "a ravishing Carmen"). The other lead singers include Marcus Haddock as Don Jose, Genia Kuhmeier as Micaela, and bass Raymond Aceto as the swaggering toreador, Escamillo. Javier Ulacia directs.

Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. (213) 972-8001 or