BOSTON — You’d think that as someone who loves both theater and classical music that I’d be a natural-born opera buff. Too often, though, I find myself getting bored by bad acting, bland sets, acoustics that aren’t warm enough, singing that doesn’t soar, yadda yadda. That’s more or less how I was feeling during most of the first act of Boston Lyric Opera’s production of “Madama Butterfly” (at the Shubert through Nov. 11).
Then came Pinkerton’s and Cio-Cio-San’s (Butterfly’s) closing duet of Act I, “Bimba dagli occhi piena di malia,” and the switch flicked. If you don’t know the story of the Puccini opera, Pinkerton is a U.S. Navy lieutenant in early 20th century Nagasaki who purchases Butterfly as his “bride,” an apparently common arrangement between Americans stationed in Japan and what passed for a Japanese tourist bureau. The expectation was that when the Caucasian left the marriage would be over.
But this is opera where grand emotions rule, not love (or sex) for sale, and it’s in that Act I duet that the two proclaim a love that knows no limits, that stops time in its tracks. It’s also in that duet that the production leaves its own earthbound limits behind as Dinyar Vania (Pinkerton) and Yunah Lee (Butterfly) sell their love to the audience as well as to each other with one of Puccini’s many gorgeous melodies. (“Bring Him Home,” one of the few decent melodies in “Les Miserables,” comes right from the humming chorus in Act II.)
Of course for Pinkerton, the Ugly American cad, it’s only a passing fancy where for Butterfly it’s the real deal. She spends most of Act II after he’s left trying to convince all the doubters that they can’t live without each other. It’s the second act, also, where it becomes the Madama Butterfly show and where Lee proves completely up to the task. Vania is the best singer onstage but also the worst actor. Lee, on the other hand, is both an excellent singer and actor and turns Butterfly’s love transcendent rather than foolish and her heartache so palpable that the knife seems the only answer.
Here she is in a different production with a different Pinkerton:
The whole production follows in Lee’s path as the spare Japanese-inspired set adds interesting elements (like a Rothko-ish splash of red), the lighting gets more creative, and Lillian Groag’s direction basically just gets less buttoned-down. (She also has smart things to say about the historical time and place in the program notes.)
It’s Lee, though, who makes this production take flight and leaves you thinking that this is Pinkerton’s tragedy for leaving her almost as much as Butterfly’s.