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Saturday, February 26, 2000

By Dennis Oda, Star-Bulletin
Cio-Cio-San -- Madama Butterfly, played by Guiping Deng
-- and her lover, Pinkerton, played by Carlo Scibelli.

‘Madama Butterfly’
given fresh

Hawaii Opera Theatre's female
artistic crew gives new wings
to the popular work

Ruth O. Bingham

Special to the Star-Bulletin


There are no heroes in Puccini's "Madama Butterfly." It may have been composed by a man, but it is a woman's opera. Like everyone else since its 1904 premiere, Puccini was infatuated with his heroine and tolerated no competition: The men in the opera are all scum.

Hawaii Opera Theatre assembled a female artistic crew for this "Butterfly" production, HOT's seventh. Stage director Paula Williams, set designer Carol Bailey and conductor Mary Chun reinterpreted the opera "from a female perspective," explained HOT's general and artistic director, Henry Akina.

"Madama Butterfly" needs fresh approaches. One of the most popular operas ever composed, it has been produced almost continuously for close to 100 years and remains a particular favorite in Hawaii, for obvious reasons.

This production, conservative by world standards, will raise some eyebrows. Williams has updated the tale from late 19th to mid-20th century, losing much political symbolism and stretching credibility: East-West relations as portrayed in "Butterfly" would have been highly unlikely near World War II. Also, Bailey has replaced the traditional teahouse with a more representational one-scene set. Clean geometric lines recall architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and its spare garden features a large mother-figure stone. Unusual at first sight, the set becomes increasingly attractive.

Color used imaginatively

Perhaps the most unusual feature is Bailey's use of color. Imagine a purple background, avocado green shoji panels, red and black beams, bright yellow floors, royal blue chairs and orange floor cushions -- all at the same time. Although the colors add a cynical edge to the tale and jar its historical placement, they also create stunning pictures: the bright orange and purple arrival of the Japanese girls; the blues and purples of night being slowly erased by a black curtain.

Little touches add interesting details. In Act II, for example, Butterfly erects an altar to Pinkerton on the same panel their full moon shone on; when she returns to her heritage, the altar slowly recedes. When Butterfly's relatives disown her, they take away her ottoke (the spirits of her ancestors) but return them during her night vigil waiting for Pinkerton to return, thereby restoring her honor. Also, Butterfly's origami wedding cranes, a strong tradition locally, add a symbolic link between acts.

Williams' staging was at its most natural with few characters on stage; chorus scenes tended toward stylized tableaux. Some staging made little sense: Why did the men discuss blueprints when the house was right there? Who were those three Western women at the wedding? Can you really die if the blade barely touches you? Other staging was excellent: the American men's shock at Butterfly's age; the unwinding of Butterfly's obi; the women dancing among flurries of flower petals; the chorus' horror over Butterfly's renunciation of her faith.

Exceptional acting

The production received inconsistent support from conductor Chun, shaky moments such as manic sunrise birds and a rather brisk waiting scene, interspersed with wonderful moments.

"Butterfly" is never kind to its men. Carlo Scibelli replaced Richard di Renzi in the thankless role of head cad (Pinkerton) and, although he presented a reasonably good interpretation, he was vocally mismatched with David Okerlund (Sharpless). Okerlund, well cast as the large, awkward American who stands out in a crowd, revealed an equally large, resonant baritone. Portrayed as an inconsistent character (kind and polite sometimes, rude and racist others), he nonetheless came across as sympathetic. Douglas Jones (Goro), with his clear tenor, coherently conveyed a not-very-likable character.

Noteworthy minor contributions included John Mount, who delivered a terrifying curse as the Bonze, and Quinn Kelsey, who suited his role as Prince Yamadori to a T.

Guiping Deng replaced Jungwon Park as Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly). Small, slender, pretty, Deng looked like a butterfly as she flitted around in her white wedding gown. In fact, her acting was exceptional, especially when she discovered Pinkerton would not return. But the evening's finest performance belonged to Yun Deng as Suzuki: She sang beautifully, acted well and caught every nuance of Japanese movement so frequently missing in Western productions.

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