PUCCINI didn't care much for spectacles or crowd scenes. He adored song and glorious singing, and the Washington Opera's "Madama Butterfly" that opened at the Kennedy Center's Opera House Saturday is a singer's production.
Certainly Ming Cho Lee's wood-and-paper Japanese house set is attractive -- although the trees surrounding it, with their stiff-necked branches, look a little silly. Zack Brown's costumes are fine, although the boy, Sorrow, looks mighty uncomfortable in whatever he is wrapped in. Director Francis Rizzo has done a nice job of reconciling the characterizations of the stylized Japanese with the more natural westerners, and the static quality of the wedding scene may reflect a desire to capture a Japanese reserve.
But, just as it ought to be, the strength of this production is in its singing. Soprano Yoko Watanabe leads the cast as a thrilling Butterfly. Her voice is generous and under exquisite control, and, as the reality of Pinkerton's duplicity sinks in, it achieves a quiet desperation that is terrifying in its intensity. Richard Leech, who looks good in the role of Pinkerton, does not use his voice with any particular subtlety, but it is a fine voice and suited to Puccini's brand of lyricism.
Suzanna Guzman's Suzuki, Gaetan Laperriere's Sharpless and Jonathan Green's Goro are thoughtfully drawn. Green looks more like Count Dracula than like a Japanese matchmaker in his makeup, but his comic mannerisms go a long way in overcoming this. The rest of the cast is also strong.
Conductor Guido Ajmone-Marsan brings the curtain up with a rather nervous angularity, but settles into a nicely shaped breadth after that. THE WASHINGTON OPERA --
"Madama Butterfly." At the Kennedy Center Opera House Friday, Monday, Wednesday and November 27 and 29 (matinee).