Livermore's Bankhead to present Puccini's 'Butterfly
By Lou Fancher
With all due respect to Livermore Valley Opera's meticulously crafted program notes, the liberating thing about the upcoming production of Giacomo Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" is that audiences can toss all the preparatory measures aside.
The story of a young geisha, Cio-Cio San, and her tender, ill-fated love for her common-law husband, American naval officer Pinkerton, is as familiar as life itself. Faced with impossible choices and craving to be loved, who among us has not acted on impulse and lived (or know someone who died) with the consequences?
LVO's "Madama Butterfly" opens Sept. 26 at the Bankhead Theater. A free, one-hour OperaLIVE! presentation Sunday at Livermore Public Library will feature Marie Plette (Cio-Cio San), Michele Detwiler (Suzuki) and Stage Director Brad Dalton in a panel discussion and performance of selected arias.
If it's an easily accessible opera, why attend a preview -- or read an article as a warm-up? Because the three-act opera sung in Italian with English subtitles, based on a French novel published in 1887 and Philadelphia lawyer John Luther Long's 18-page narrative, adapted for the stage by playwright David Belasco and arriving with the full-throttle, years-long training required of opera singers can still seem like a mighty intimidating wall. But cozy up to the major players; obstacles tumble, especially in regards to Dalton and Plette.
"I have a relaxed, populist approach to the form," Dalton says. A graduate of Harvard University and the National Shakespeare Conservatory, Dalton has directed or created productions at the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, San Francisco Opera and others. In 2003, he won the Helpmann Award for "Best Director of an Opera" in Australia for his direction of Jake Heggie's "Dead Man Walking."
Dalton says "Butterfly" is an opera house staple in part because audiences needn't be experts to appreciate strongly described characters or to understand the central themes. On a large scale, the opera illustrates the clash between British colonialism and Japanese culture; on an intimate level, a young woman discovers her strength and weakness through the lens of love.
Because Dalton has endured overproduced operas about the problems of the aristocracy with an hour of adagio singing and thought, "That's not me out there," -- he's kept the production streamlined. "The only thing audiences should know ahead of time is that a geisha is not a cheap prostitute. They're the result of extensive training."
A minimalist approach to the visuals has Dalton working with set designer Jean-Francois Revon and using projections for the first time. "The music needs simple, large-scale gestures. I saw this as an opportunity to have gigantic waves, birds flying and other things I won't describe because it would spoil the surprise."
One element that won't surprise Dalton or audiences is Plette. A performer with the Metropolitan Opera since her debut in 1992, the Bay Area-based soprano previously appeared in LVO's "Don Giovanni." Plette has performed with San Francisco Opera House, West Edge Opera, Contra Costa Civic Theatre and others. Dalton says her voice is pure and pleasing; her acting honest, sensitive and absent of overgesturing.
Plette says "Butterfly's" emotional journey is raw and wonderful. "There's a girlie, happy young person in the early parts. You're carrying your child, running around the stage. It's a physically exhausting role."
As her character suffers Pinkerton's betrayal and decides upon a horrid course of action, Plette says the role becomes personally painful. "The hardest part is being a mother myself. My beautiful boy is always in my mind when she sings "You're going to a better life" before giving him up. It's a crazy mother thing to say."
In addition to the amount of singing (she's been in six-hour operas with far less singing), the role pushes Plette to the edge. "The first time I did the role, I had reflux. I was so nervous about getting to the end of it. I'm glad to have many butterflies in my backpack."
The closing aria, "Con onor muore" ("To die with honor"), requires holding back the full throttle of her voice's dynamic vibration. "The goal is to get close to the edge, but there still has be restraint," she says.
Fortunately, it is for Plette alone to worry about vocal risk. For the audience, they can abandon themselves to experiences like that of Plette's 3-year-old niece. The young girl once saw Plette perform in "Butterfly" and cried out at the end, "Where's the Captain? He has to come back."
Plette says, "If a 3-year-old can understand it, we don't have to get wrapped up in things that distance us. The heart of the matter is love, music and the pathos of the story."