A back-to-basics "Butterfly" and other stage highlights

We've had the whole range — from traditional to poetic to deconstructed, the last one a stunning abstraction by Robert Wilson. But now, in its umpteenth production of "Madama Butterfly," LA Opera has gone back to basics. After all, Puccini's cross-cultural tragedy is a box office shoo-in, so no matter what form it takes, there's an audience beating down the doors.

This edition — by the Ron Daniels-Michael Yeargan team — hails from San Francisco and rolls out across the full horizontal stretch of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion's stage — no clutter, simplicity itself, with an almost utilitarian sense of japonaiserie. (Don't look for a cozy love nest here!) But all the central pieces are in place: an innocent geisha from Nagasaki, an American lieutenant who caddishly engineers his way through a fake marriage to her, an honor-bound suicide that becomes the only way out, a small child left in its wake.

butterfly-laopera.jpgAnd so does the cast solidly support the above game plan, albeit with little directorial dimension. Oksana Dyka may look a tad matronly for a 15-year-old Cio-Cio-San who is described as "a flower of a girl" (no thanks to her overly-padded traditional wedding gown), but she boasts a sturdy soprano that can cut through heavy orchestral fabric for her big outpourings. Brandon Jovanovich also trumpets a bright tenor that resounds strongly, as the single-minded Pinkerton who maneuvers his temporary way to her bed, though without anything resembling ardor.

Milena Kitic, a Suzuki full of empathy for the jilted bride, sings with deep expressiveness. Rodel Rosel is an animated, fleet-footed marriage-broker, Goro. Not least, Eric Owens endows the American consul Sharpless with subdued understanding for the sorrowful situation. And Grant Gershon coordinates stage and orchestra ably, with emphasis on the score's soaring melodies. However, the question of whether a tiny child — Garret Chang, as Trouble — could sit quietly onstage for at least a half hour proved a distraction from the high drama going on around him.

But, ah, our memories of past "Butterfly's" do not evaporate. Could anyone forget Maria Ewing in the title role — that porcelain figurine of a geisha, a picture of stillness and gravity (no pattering feet or metaphoric wing-fluttering) — even though she lacked vocal heft? Or Tom Allen as the horror-struck, husky-voiced Sharpless, shadowing the tragedy to come? Or Pl├ícido Domingo's dashing lieutenant, enveloping his bride in tender eroticism? Or the dark, Debussyean currents Kent Nagano unearthed in Puccini's score?

Sometimes, though, memories get reinforced. Take the performances of Barbara Cook, for example.

Yes, she can still make you cry. Such is the pinpoint pathos that the cabaret singer extraordinaire unfailingly evokes — at 85 — -together with all the other magical facets of her artistry.

She walks onstage now with a cane, to roaring ovation, and (reluctantly) sits in a chair huddled against the piano's crook (remember Mabel Mercer?), where, even seated, she can glitter and be gay. That's what Cook did at Disney Hall — backed up by the LA Philharmonic, led to loving effect by the savvy Rob Berman and surrounded by her own superb, hand-picked instrumental quartet.

So what is it about her, you're wondering. Why is she a Kennedy Center honoree, a master of the master-class, one who draws gifted musicians and composers to her side and other famous singers to her feet?

Well, if you have a discerning ear you'll know: it's the same as for any purveyor of art songs — and I say this because she raises American show tunes to the level of Lieder.

You can hear it in her phrasing, which purifies to poetry and emerges as natural utterance, not words mashed into music. It's in the voice itself which spans to an architectural overview so that every line makes sense. It's in the coloration within a single note — all at the service of expression and word pointing. It's in the manner of delivery, with a legato that's like a leaf floating on a breeze as it turns this way and that.

Never mind that her pitch strayed a bit at the start or even that she ever so mildly resorted to parlando at times. Just try, if you can, to not come to tears listening to her sing Sondheim — in this case, "No one is alone," from "Into the Woods." I wish I could tell you more about this emotional mystery, how she touches the innermost heart. It happens regularly: a few years ago at a Cerritos concert with "Anyone Can Whistle" and, until she retired it, with "Send in the Clowns." Something about Cook and Sondheim...

As for her forays into those foot-tapping bar-room ditties, she loses me. It's the sophisticated intimacies that Cook unveils that are hers alone — in songs that capitalize on sophisticated intimacies.

But the always-questing singer digs deep into the lore; she lavishes great regard on composers and librettists by name. I especially love how she explains why Cole Porter, for all his cleverness, escaped her — how she never could fantasize "flying too high in the sky with a guy" — until the day she sang "I've Got You under My Skin" as a slow, serious confession. And what a coup that was at Disney with her quartet's masterly arrangement. The same goes for "Bye Bye Blackbird," deciphered (and sung) as an antidote to "House of the Rising Sun" (a capella), about the enslaved girls' misery at a brothel.

esa-pekka-salonen-1.jpgAnd, again, dramatic misery engulfed Disney Hall when Esa-Pekka Salonen returned to the podium, with his Philharmonia Orchestra for Alban Berg's "Wozzeck" - forever destroying the myth that it takes a fully-staged performance to bring powerful immediacy to a work like this.

What a night it was. The house lights completely up, no props, the mostly male cast in black suits fronting the band. And yet, all vestiges of their semi-staging in London a few years ago, with costumes and video, had rubbed into the portrayals — they were vivid, riveting. As the haunted proletariat Wozzeck Johan Reuter was believably delusional, made so by his antagonists: Peter Hoare, an aptly hectoring Captain; Kevin Burdette, the equally cruel Doctor; Hubert Francis a preening Drum Major; and Angela Denoke, his common-law-wife who showed him no regard but provoked him to murder.

Salonen wrung from the orchestra a lean, clarified sound that could explode with the score's roiling anguish or taper into palpable hopelessness or exquisite yearning - momentous from beginning to end.

Also with house lights up, and deliberately so, is the jaunty, almost ironic "Hamlet," courtesy of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre and playing through Nov. 25 at the Broad Stage. Touches of late-night humor here and there prove that nothing is beyond reach anymore.

LA Opera photos: Robert Millard

More by Donna Perlmutter:
Previous blog post: Sports Beat, 11-25-2012
Next blog post: Stoney Point in late afternoon
Recently on Native Intelligence
New at LA Observed

LA Observed on Twitter