Robert Wilson’s production of “Madama Butterfly” is an artwork in itself. Those looking to “Butterfly” for elaborate Japanese decor and atmosphere can be put off by the austere lines and long-held stylized gestures on a near-empty stage that are the basics of Wilson’s vocabulary. But his conception has begun to make glorious sense in a production now in its third time around at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. This isn’t merely a down-to-earth rendition of Puccini’s weeper; it is the essence of tragedy, of the wretched effects of human cruelty, a heart-rending distillation that elevates the tragedy — and, yes, the beauty — of the opera beyond expectations.
As before, there isn’t much to see on the Dorothy Chandler stage: a flat surface, a stream meandering through it, distant lights in the foreground and background to suggest the time of day and, near the end, the arrival of B.F. Pinkerton’s American warship. A few individuals in stark, Kabuki-like poses suffice for Puccini’s bustling choruses.
Wilson has preached long and hard over the years about the expressive values in standing still, and his “Butterfly” staging — with, for example, the Butterfly confronting her “rival,” Kate Pinkerton, with their outstretched arms in contrasting positions — could serve as a paradigm. Also amusing is the way Wilson has obliged all his Japanese flunkies to circumambulate the stage as if on wheels.
Debuting soprano Liping Zhang, already famous in houses here and abroad, is the Butterfly of anyone’s dreams: lithe in looks and in voice, utterly moving in joy and anger. Her B.F. Pinkerton, alas, is the augur-voiced Franco Farina; Stephen Powell is an OK Sharpless. Tiny, blond Sean Eaton, all of 11, steals all his scenes as the child Trouble, a role expanded in Wilson’s version into a sure-fire crowd-pleaser. James Conlon’s musical leadership is at all times pliant, dynamic, worthy of a masterpiece.