Originally created 01/30/98

`Butterfly' shows beauty, style amid tragedy



Mdame Butterfly, which opened Wednesday at the Imperial Theatre, is made of the simplest materials: a Japanese woman, an American naval officer, a love pledge which each makes in the context of his or her own culture, and then the tragic aftermath.

The Augusta Opera's production of the Puccini opera, under the musical direction of Robert Ashens, keeps it simple and focused. There's no distracting flamboyant sets or extravagant costuming. All is lovely, all is simple: two Japanese cottages "made of paper and air" as Puccini puts it, but solid as a rock -- every bit an extension of Butterfly herself.

The result is an evening of vivid visual scenes as lovely and delicate as those on a Japanese screen.

But of course, this is not primarily an evening for the eyes, delighted as they may be, but for the ears and the heart. And here, too, this production is satisfying.

Phillip Webb is a big man, and as Lt. Pinkerton, the personification of Americanism, his interpretation accentuates well-fed American self-satisfaction and condescension to other cultures.

In Act 1 he is tieless, stressing middle class informality and his amusement at Japanese customs. But his ringing tenor voice is full of passion as he realizes that Butterfly is giving up everything to marry him. His anguish in Act 3 is heartfelt and deeply moving.

Stephen Lusmann is a smooth and gentlemanly Sharpless, by turns ironic and sincere, detached and deeply moved. He communicates many complicated emotions in the scene in which he tries to read Butterfly the farewell letter from Mr. Pinkerton. And as Suzuki, Janine Hawley is given too few opportunities to display her wonderfully rich mezzo.

But this is Butterfly's opera, and since Maryanne Telese is both Butterfly and the production's stage director, she bears a double burden. It never seems like one.

Ms. Telese's Butterfly becomes more beautiful in each act, the joy of her girlish love in Act 1 replaced by her indomitable faith in Act 2, then her alternating joy, anguish and resolve in Act 3. Her voice and stage presence embody with utter conviction a range of emotions from calm patience to triumph, from motherly tenderness to gut-wrenching despair. It is a magnificent performance.

The supertitles work extremely well in this Italian opera, for in English performances much of the libretto is inevitably lost. The supertitiles make it possible to hear the opera as pure sound and at the same time not to miss any of the poetry of the dialogue.

All these elements combine to create an evening of unforgettable moments: three figures on the stage, their backs to the audience, stare motionless through a screen; Butterfly bows for the last time to Sharpless, or is she clutching her stomach in agony? She strews petals on the stage with Suzuki for a glorious return, but those petals turn, in Act 3, to shreds of dead flowers. She holds her child in a madonna-and-child tableau for the last time. Beautiful and unforgettable.

Performances continue today through Sunday. On Friday and Sunday the part of Butterfly will be sung by Young Soon Kook.

Jim Garvey teaches journalism and English at Augusta State University.