Wise directors know that sometimes the best thing they can do is stand back and let a time-tested opera work its magic without getting in the way. Colin Graham is a respected director who has followed this credo in his tasteful, understated "Madama Butterfly," which opened last night at the Shubert Theatre. It is the first production of the Boston Lyric Opera's 30th anniversary season.
Americans never come off looking good in any version of Puccini's tragic opera, but Graham plays up their cigarette-flicking crassness and subtly emphasizes their outsider status by polishing up the wooden floor of Butterfly's home such that the Americans' shoes squeak audibly when they walk on stage. It's meant as an emblem, Graham explains in a note, of their treading callously over the native Japanese customs. It works well enough. So do the sets, originally created for the Minnesota Opera and the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and consisting mainly of sliding shoji screens.
But of course, the fortunes of any "Butterfly" ultimately lie with the abilities of its title character, and this production succeeds on the strength of Kelly Kaduce's winning performance. A Boston University-trained singer whose national career is gathering momentum, Kaduce made a well-received company debut last spring in Massenet's "Thaïs." Her Butterfly was refreshingly self-possessed -- not a passive, waif-like victim of her surroundings as much as an active author of her own tragic fate. There was at times a slight harshness to her voice in its highest registers, but much more often she sang with gracefulness, strength , and an abundance of warm, radiant tone. The audience rewarded her with a well-deserved ovation.
Kaduce was the clear standout in this cast that was otherwise at a competent regional level. Gerard Powers was B.F. Pinkerton, the cruelly oblivious American naval officer who chooses, as we might say in contemporary political parlance, to cut and run. His voice is sizable , and he dispatched some handsomely turned Italianate phrases, but his singing was somewhat monochromatic, and, even though he has performed opposite Kaduce before (in "La Boheme" at New York City Opera), their first-act chemistry was limited. Melina Pineda was a fine
Jeremy Eichler can be reached at email@example.com.