PITTSFIELD -- Berkshire Opera's production of Puccini's ``Madama Butterfly" is intermittently brilliant, thoroughly intense, and highly disturbing.
Gregory Keller's staging offers high concept on a shoestring budget: Dipu Gupta's set is a simple double platform decorated with banners; there is no house, no hill, no harbor. Each of Melissa Schlachtmeyer's imaginative costumes is in a single color -- no brocade, no patterns. The theatrical style is a mixture of kitchen-sink naturalism and ancient Asian tradition, mostly Japanese Noh . And it's impossible to weep because the spectacle is so horrifying.
The production opens with the ritual suicide of Madama Butterfly's father. Throughout the opera he and a corps of white-net - clad dancers playing her ancestors observe and interact with her story in a choreographed mix of dance and martial-arts movements.
Some of this is powerful and persuasive. When Butterfly commits suicide, she falls into the grasp of her writhing ancestors. When her American betrayer, Lieutenant Pinkerton , arrives, too late, crying ``Butterfly!," she struggles free for a moment, then willingly rejoins the spirit world.
Some of it is confusing or silly: The callous Pinkerton is an all-American male chauvinist pig, but the sympathetic American consul, Sharpless, repeatedly strikes Asian theatrical poses. In the love duet, Butterfly brazenly unbuttons Pinkerton's blazer and reveals a rose tattoo on his upper arm; she opens the second act lying on the floor in Western dress, with a cherry-blossom pattern in it, paging through a magazine; it looks for a moment as if she is going to light a cigarette.
The evident intent is to establish Butterfly as a heroic figure, cast out of her own culture but in the end faithful to it. But the effect is just the opposite: The production supports the view of many critics, not just feminist ones, who deplore Puccini's attraction to stories of victimized women and his exploiting their extreme emotional distress as entertainment.
This effect is reinforced by the conducting of Kathleen Kelly , who clearly knows the opera cold but italicizes and underlines everything to the point of distortion. There is nothing picturesque, conversational, spontaneous, or charming in this ``Butterfly." Instead she has Karajanized it: The performance is slow and distended, and every word is laden with irony and portent. The audience is tortured the way Butterfly is.
Soprano Sandra Lopez has everything it takes to become a memorable Butterfly. She's a committed, passionate actress with a luscious and tireless voice she can suffuse with emotion. She does need to pace herself better; she began too heavily, doing nothing to suggest Butterfly's 15 years in the early scenes, so there was no way to bring in richer colors later as the child bride becomes a woman. Mika Shigematsu, well-remembered for mezzo coloratura virtuosity at Boston Lyric Opera, was the faithful servant Suzuki, with a very convincing and detailed characterization. But one felt sorry to find her in this subsidiary role; ``Butterfly" is for Asian singers what ``Porgy and Bess" is for too many African-Americans, a graveyard for wider hopes. Baritone Troy Cook was vocally, musically, and dramatically first-rate as Sharpless , and Andrew Gangestad unleashed a powerful bass in the brief role of Butterfly's uncle-priest.
Tenor John Bellemer, so delightful last summer as the good-hearted nitwit Nemorino in ``The Elixir of Love," was a callous nitwit as Pinkerton. With vocal resources that are modest for this role, he sang admirably. At the end, he took his curtain call diffidently; he apparently knew how much the production made the audience hate him. ``What could I do?" his expression and gestures seemed to ask. ``I was just following orders. Puccini made me do it."