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A vivid metamorphosis for 'Butterfly'

January 23, 2012

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    January 23, 2012
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    Opera Carolina News

A vivid metamorphosis for 'Butterfly'

The familiar little Japanese house is gone. So are the hillside in the background and the wooden footbridge leading to it. The pastel kimonos that usually shimmer on the heroine and her wedding attendants are packed away.

Instead, a curved ramp slopes down to a stage that's white streaked with black. A single, tall panel slides into view to suggest the house. The costumes seize the eye with their vivid blocks of color and bold dots and stripes.

As the newlyweds sing their love duet, the moon gleams behind them in the form of a yellow disc projected onto a screen. The flowers that the heroine and her servant traditionally strew around the stage have metamorphosed into clouds of confetti -- which also float from above via video.

Opera Carolina's "Madama Butterfly," which opened Saturday, has a dramatic new look -- the work of Japanese artist Jun Kaneko, who designed the set, costumes and video images. Yet the most eye-catching thing of all is Butterfly herself.

One of the opera's world's ultimate challenges is for a singer who has the vocal heft to surmount Puccini's music to make herself believable as a vulnerable teenager. Korean soprano Yunah Lee does.

This Butterfly moves and sings as delicately as her natural-world namesake, especially when she's first bewitching the American sailor who has bought her as his wife. Yet anytime Puccini's music needs to surge, her voice easily takes wing over the swelling orchestra. Even then, its clear, vibrant tones keep the youthful aura alive.

That's only one sign of the strength behind Butterfly's apparent fragility. As it dawns on her that Pinkerton has abandoned her, Lee registers the impact as viscerally as a punch in the stomach. She collects herself, though. And once Butterfly resolves that there's only one way to salvage her honor, Lee's stoic composure makes Butterfly a heroic figure, not an object of pity.

That climax also brings Kaneko's most potent stage picture. The intense colors and other visual fantasies go away. Butterfly executes her ritual surrounded by stark, merciless black and white. Kaneko's coup de grace is a final, telling image that I'm not going to spoil.

Stage director Leslie Swackhamer contributes a visual artifice of her own: She employs four black-garbed figures who scurry around arranging furniture and delivering props to the cast. They streamline things for the cast. But Swackhamer's main contribution is to bring the humanity that emanates from Lee's Butterfly weave through all the cast. As Pinkerton, Butterfly's husband, Fernando Portari responds to Lee's grace with tenderness of his own. If at times he's a little stiff, that -- along with Portari's bright, spirited singing -- may also help put over the picture of an American who's swaggering into things he doesn't understand. Margaret Thompson's deep voice and grounded demeanor make Butterfly's servant, Suzuki, a complement to Butterfly's youthful grace.

Todd Thompson is a dignified presence as Sharpless, the U.S. consul who has to deal with Pinkerton's caddishness. His complement is the marriage broker Goro, whom Julius Ahn makes an obsequious, oily creature. No wonder Butterfly disdains him.

The Charlotte Symphony doesn't quite take Puccini's music to the point of lushness. But conductor James Meena enables it to capture Puccini's rapid shifts of mood and color. It supplies playfulness, lyricism and cries of anguish with equal immediacy. In its way, it's as vivid as Kaneko's designs.

By Steven Brown The Charlotte Observer

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