Most performing art forms these days are openly confronting outdated gender and racial mores and stereotypes. Opera, though, keeps stumbling. A lot of works in the canon include characters and attitudes that are frankly offensive today — including Monostatos, the evil black man in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” and roles such as Otello and Aida that have for years been sung by white performers in dark makeup. An epitome of this is Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” one of the most beloved and yet most racist of canonical works. But suggest these things are wrong and you get hordes of opera lovers rising up to loudly protest your philistinism and ignorance.
“Butterfly,” which the In Series is presenting at the Source Theatre through Sept. 22, sets out, modestly and sensitively, to throw a grenade into the middle of the discussion. The production — or productions, since director Timothy Nelson has created two separate versions, one in Italian and one in English — reframes the story so that instead of being about race or relying on stereotype, it focuses on the enduring aspects of the character and the greatness of the music. Butterfly, here, is a woman in an institution, obsessing over a lover who may or may not actually have existed. The waiting, the passion and the desire that are so central to Puccini’s opera remain, as do the musical’s greatest hits, arias, duets and all. But race is not a factor and, for the end, Nelson turned to the short story by John Luther Long on which David Belasco based the melodrama that inspired Puccini’s opera, in which the close is open-ended; the reader does not know whether Butterfly kills herself, only that her house is left empty.
Being confronted with such powerful music sung by operatic voices in a small space creates its own kind of emotional tension from the outset. Another source of tension for opera lovers is the disparity between the familiar original and this 90-minute, reworked collage of the score, which composer, pianist and music director of this production, Jessica Krash, has enhanced with dark, jarring chords and some prepared piano elements, such as tinfoil lying on the strings that adds a jangling buzz to the music. (Here, certain themes signal not “japonaiserie,” but Butterfly’s obsession; the singer, Amanda Palmeiro, winced in pain and physically tried to drive them out of her head whenever they appeared.) I wondered how anyone who didn’t know the opera would react to the piece, as those of us who did were inevitably recognizing familiar pieces and assessing how well they fit together in this new configuration.
The stage space, designed by Jonathan Dahm Robertson, was also at once deliberately claustrophobic and lovely. Paper butterflies festooned the walls and piano, while large sheets of paper hung from the ceiling created the space where Butterfly sat and waited and obsessed, doubling as anodyne institutional whiteness and the paper screens of the Japanese house described in the original libretto. Within the space, several white globes, looking like papier-mâché balloons, sat in a circle in Butterfly’s room, defining her sphere of action, representing her possessions and concerns and even her child, who was, in this interpretation, clearly and poignantly part of the delusion.
All of this ultimately rises and falls on the music, and here, too, the production passed muster. Palmeiro’s Butterfly is luminous: Onstage for the entire evening and never losing steam as she sang the familiar arias and duets, the actress created a beautiful, troubled, loving and lovable character, something essential to pulling off this tricky reinvention of the work. Equally vivid was Elizabeth Mondragon’s Suzuki, loyally devoted to this suffering woman; their interaction was as poignant as I’ve ever seen it in standard productions of the work. Erik Grendahl was the firm Sharpless (partly a doctor come in to examine the patient), and Brian Arreola started out as a ringing handsome Pinkerton, though his voice grew tired by the evening’s end.
This is not an easy production; it isn’t meant to be. Like some of Nelson’s other productions I’ve seen, it left me curious what other opera lovers would think, particularly because it openly raises issues that in my experience many fans would rather not confront. But it shed new light on music I loved, was both moving and thought-provoking, and offered strong performances of beautiful music, which is all one hopes for from an evening of opera. The company offers an encore ticket deal that allows ticket-buyers to return to subsequent performances free; if you liked the English, you can check out the Italian. Whether you liked the show or were left uncertain, it’s an offer worth taking up.
“Butterfly” continues through Sept. 22 at the Source Theatre.