If you’re going to Tacoma Opera’s “Madama Butterfly” this weekend, you can either enjoy the visuals, or enjoy the singing – just not both at the same time. The company’s first production in ten years of the Puccini classic about a geisha dumped by an American naval officer, it’s a real mix of visual beauty, lovely vocals – and some of the worst orchestra accompaniment, acting and make-up the Pantages has seen.
Here’s what’s great about “Madama Butterfly”: the set and costumes. Carey Wong’s 2004 design, slightly reduced, really pops under the lighting, with a subtle gray-pink cherry blossom drop, lush foliage and a red-trimmed screen. Rather boringly, it stays exactly the same throughout the three-act opera, which doesn’t help the drama, but it’s still very pretty, despite some ridiculously vaudevillean lighting moments (sudden, gasping red for the word ‘death,’ for instance). The costumes, too, make lovely eye-candy: mostly vintage kimonos in a restrained blue/pink palette, with Butterfly’s wedding kimono shimmering like a golden Klimt painting come alive.
Also great are the vocals. Except for a very weak women’s chorus, every moment of the score is well-sung, even those long soaring passages that take such power and control. Naomi Ruiz, as Butterfly, was the star here, with a rich soprano that held both stunning power and tender softness – a voice to watch. Jon Farmer sang the feckless Pinkerton’s endlessly selfish utterings with a mellow tenor, very even across the range; Barry Johnson, as the consul Sharpless, managed to lighten his baritone to match Farmer’s plummy high register for a perfect duo. Sarah Larsen sang the maid Suzuki with a lusciously big alto.
Sadly, all of them – even Ruiz – had a hard time projecting against an insensitively loud orchestra. Denes Van Parys clearly showed his inexperience conducting a professional company in this acoustically awful hall, as thickly written sections consistently drowned vocals. He also failed to hold the opening string fugue together, and other tempo transitions were messy, with some wind and violin work that clearly didn’t have enough rehearsal.
But the orchestra wasn’t the worst thing about this “Butterfly.” Most acting was quite deplorable, with Farmer doing more stand-and-sing than passionate loving, Ruiz offering a two-dimensional Butterfly that fluttered between irritating gullibility and stoic loopiness, and Larsen depriving Suzuki of any intelligence whatsoever. Only in the wedding-night scene was there any passion, and that was completely doused by the ridiculously burlesque finishing touch of a behind-the-screen backlit kimono-dropping. (The backlit trick was used again in the suicide scene with college-level predictability.)
The only thing saving the action was the brief but dramatic cursing by Deac Guidi as Uncle Bonze, some very funny antics by Karl Marx Reyes as the smarmy matchmaker Goro, and Johnson, who carried a thoughtful yet wimpy Sharpless through to the end. Oh, and a very composed Anna Lan Xue Stocker, cute as a button, as Butterfly’s child.
But the worst part of all? Butterfly’s geisha make-up, which – though perhaps historic – managed to make a beautiful young soprano look as ugly and ancient as a mother-in-law: Cio-Cio San turned Katisha, thus making the entire plot completely unbelievable.