Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

The song remains the same

October 08, 2008

Liping Zhang, Erica Brookhyser, and Catherine Keen
Photo: Robert Millard/LAO 2008
Los Angeles Opera is currently in the midst of yet another revival of the Robert Wilson production of Puccini's Madama Butterfly. In fact, it’s the third outing this decade which raises somewhat of a paradox. In speaking to oodles of subscribers and other local opera goers, I’ve noticed that there seems to be a huge number of people who absolutely hate this production. (This is not at all my own opinion. I think it’s a great production of a horrible opera.) Its eastern-influenced choreography, hyper-minimal sets, and forced sense of dislocation are a perennial topic of conversation around these parts. If someone in L.A. is raging about how much they hate non-traditional opera productions or in fact anything they hate about opera, this particular production is often exhibit A. In fact, having to listen to these conversations is in fact the most irritating thing about these revivals.

But yet they keep happening which suggests that the company has been selling tickets to the performances in the past and hopes to do so again (and again, and again). So, assuming that the wishes of the most regular subscribers and previously-exposed audience members are not the primary concern here, it appears that there must be a large pool of people in L.A. who are interested in seeing Madama Butterfly regardless of what it may or may not look like. Whether or not this is good for the company in the long run or drums up lots of newly interested audience members, I’ll leave to others to debate. However, I find it wonderfully ironic that the company seems to keep its coffers flush by constantly reviving a production that is so widely reviled. It seems subversive to me in some odd and amusing way.

This particular outing is actually not too shabby musically this time. James Conlon gave a serviceable take on the score and the Butterfly Liping Zhang, who has an international reputation for singing this role had the high notes if not necessarily all of the needed power behind them. On the whole, I found her more satisfying than many of the others currently singing this role including Patricia Racette. We were burdened yet again with Franco Farina shouting his was through Pinkerton to no end. Luckily it is rather a small role and he has little to do in Act II. Wilson’s vision comes off well with this cast who are more physically able to handle the challenges of the severe gesturing and posturing he calls for than previous teams here, so that is good. Overall it still is a very beautiful staging, and while it may not be the best place for someone seeing an opera for the first time to start, I do love the fact that Los Angeles stands behind the production time and again. I hope it is making money: especially if it supports some of the company's more ambitious projects this year.


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