Los Angeles is suddenly awash in Robert Wilson productions this season — and what an irony that is, given the trail of proposed yet unfulfilled local projects of his that stretches back for decades. He has practically taken over Los Angeles Opera this winter — first with “Parsifal” last November and December and now a revival of his 2004 production of “Madama Butterfly” this month and next — and his production of “The Black Rider” arrives at the Ahmanson in the spring. He’s still the same Robert Wilson — not compromising his austere, unified, visually stunning conception of theater one iota — it’s just that Los Angeles has caught up with him. On the other hand, given the relatively subdued applause that greeted his “Butterfly” two years ago and again Saturday night, have we?
What makes Wilson’s idea of opera so disconcerting to some is that he tends to drain the essential qualities out of a work, replacing them with his own vision of ritual theater. In the case of “Parsifal,” it was the grandeur that was missing; in “Butterfly,” it is sentimentality, the core emotion that Puccini manipulated with such cunning mastery in his three most popular operas (the others being “La Boheme” and “Tosca”).
Wilson’s “Butterfly” continues to look a lot like Wilson’s “Parsifal”; you wonder if they ever bothered to take down the LCD-like screen that forms the backdrop for both. There is no Japanese house, no garden, little overt expression of emotion or physical contact in the acting, no hara-kiri ceremony at the close. Every time you look at the stage, there is a striking vision of the cast members illuminated in bold relief against the ever-changing light show in the rear.
On the one hand, Wilson’s borrowings from Japanese ritual theater have found an idiomatic visual home. On the other, Puccini’s Italian verismo instincts are undercut, neutralized. It’s up to the singers to make the audience get out their handkerchiefs while remaining under the stylized physical control of Wilson.
This time, one singer did — the crucial one. It was soprano Patricia Racette, in her L.A. Opera debut, who broke through, creating an emotionally touching portrait of Cio-Cio San (Butterfly) with her careful enunciation, delectable turns of phrase and limpid stoicism at the close. Even though she did not physically evoke a 15-year-old geisha — nor was she made up to look Japanese — Racette created the illusion with her voice. Tellingly, she was the one who finally roused the audience to its feet at the curtain call.
Otherwise, it was a good cast, if not an exceptional one, with tenor Marcus Haddock as a competent Pinkerton, with a darkish midrange and a bit of thinness at the top, mezzo-soprano Margaret Thompson as a suitably compassionate Suzuki, Russian baritone Vladimir Chernov registering some indignation and energy as Sharpless in Act II. Interestingly Stephen Cruz, the boy who played Butterfly’s young son, looked especially comfortable executing Wilson’s concentrated stage movements.
In contrast to Kent Nagano’s smoothly downplayed, detail-obsessed performance two years ago in “Butterfly,” Dan Ettinger’s conducting was more conventional and somewhat slower overall, more willing to play up Puccini’s gushes of emotion. Yet the score didn’t flow as well for Ettinger as it did for Nagano, nor did the L.A. Opera orchestra play with equal refinement. Edge to Nagano.