Madame Butterfly," the story of a trusting 19th-century Japanese girl who falls in love with a fickle American naval officer, first captivated American audiences in 1900 as a play by impresario David Belasco. The Italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini saw the play's London production and commented later that though he didn't speak English, he completely understood the passionate characters and the emotion-laden story, which depicts the couple's love affair and ends in tragedy. Puccini turned the story into "Madama Butterfly," a work that has since become one of the greatest hits of the operatic world, beloved by directors and performers alike.
Among the most striking recent productions of this wildly emotional piece was one staged by the minimalist director Robert Wilson, which had its American premiere at Los Angeles Opera in 2004 to great acclaim. The production returns to Los Angeles in January, with an Israeli conductor at the podium and a celebrated soprano making her local debut. Patricia Racette, who has cut a wide swath through the classic Italian repertoire while creating roles in new American operas, will head the cast as Cio-Cio-San.
Puccini's first attempt to set "Madame Butterfly" to music, mounted at La Scala in 1904, was unsuccessful, but a revised version later that year became one of the world's most frequently produced operas. While Puccini incorporated Asian sounds into the opera, the score is filled with the lush, soaring music associated with the Italian composer.
Wilson's austere production places the singers on an almost bare stage and restricts them to slow, precise movements influenced by Noh theater and modern dance.
"If you weren't hearing Puccini coming out of the orchestra pit ... you'd swear it was an opera by Philip Glass," one commentator wrote of the 2004 production.
The spareness of the physical production doesn't faze conductor Dan Ettinger, however, although the 34-year-old Israeli describes himself as "very emotional and dramatic."
Ettinger, who conducted "Aida" for the L.A. Opera in 2004, told The Journal that he plans to counter the emotionality of "Madama Butterfly" with strict attention to rhythm.
"Many singers and opera listeners think Puccini's music is free, because it loses its way in wonderful melodies and emotional expression," he said. "But actually all of his operas are composed with very strict rhythm instructions that serve the drama well.
"This balance between wild emotions and strict rhythm in my music making should match Wilson's minimalist physical production. I believe that the less the singers do physically on stage will bring out the inner emotion and drama that are so well built in Puccini's score," added the Holon-born Ettinger, who recently became music director and principal conductor of the Israel Symphony Orchestra and also conducts for the Staatsoper Berlin.
The production also marks Patricia Racette's first visit to a Los Angeles stage, a debut long awaited by local opera lovers. She has sung many of the leading roles in the Verdi and Puccini repertoire, along with roles in classic French, Czech and Russian operas, to critical acclaim and ecstatic audiences around the world.
Racette, 37, is known as a champion of new works and has created leading roles in recent operas by Tobias Picker and Carlisle Floyd. In fact, Racette comes to Los Angeles from the world premiere of Picker's opera "An American Tragedy," based on the Theodore Dreiser novel, for the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
She performs regularly with the Metropolitan Opera, the San Francisco Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Santa Fe Opera and the Houston Grand Opera. Covering performances earlier this year in Verdi's "Falstaff" and Janacek's "Jenufa," reviewer D.L. Groover of the Houston Press called Racette "a consummate actor" and "one of opera's greatest assets."
She sang Cio-Cio-San in Houston last year, her first production of "Madama Butterfly" since her workshop days fresh out of North Texas State University.
"She brings this na?ve, terribly honorable girl to life just by the way she delicately closes her square paper parasol, or lightly dances a few geisha movements, or gently covers her mouth in embarrassment, or fiercely embraces her child in their last good-bye," reviewer Groover wrote. "Racette, with effortless ease of tone and phrasing, with dramatic surety and star presence, is in a league of her own."
But Racette gives just as much attention to characterization in the older European roles she performs, speaking in past interviews of the challenges of working with characters that seem two-dimensional or unbelievable to contemporary American audiences.
Puccini's music, Racette told a Houston Chronicle interviewer, lends itself well to her voice, and she finds Cio-Cio-San an interesting and complex character. The role does present the challenge, she said, of acting like a demure geisha while singing like an Italian diva.
But she succeeded in doing just that in Houston, and in a way that should serve her well in Wilson's austere mounting.
"Racette conquered the basic dilemma of the role: how to look Japanese, act 15 and sing like a hot-blooded Italian two or three times that age," reviewer Charles Ward wrote in the Houston Chronicle. "Outwardly, the geisha was graceful and respectful; Racette's stylized movement was effortless. Inwardly, she had a steely, single-minded commitment to idealized love."
The L.A. Opera's production of "Madama Butterfly" opens Saturday, Jan. 21, at 7:30 p.m., at Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, with subsequent evening performances on Jan. 25 and Feb. 1, 4, and 8, and matinees on Jan. 29 and Feb. 12 and 19. Tickets to "Madama Butterfly" range from $30 to $205, and are on sale at the L.A. Opera Box Office, by phone at (213) 972-8001 or online at www.laopera.com.