L.A. Opera’s ‘Madame Butterfly’ Oksana Dyka is no innocent young child bride, but she’s highly worthy of the role

Oksana Dyka as ‘Madame Butterfly’. Photo by Robert Millard for Los Angeles Opera

Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles.
2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 25 and Dec. 9
7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 28, Saturday, Dec. 1, and Thursday, Dec. 6.
Tickets currently available: $80-$319; ask about dynamic pricing that starts at $19
213-972-8001; laopera.com.

By Jim Farber

Correspondent

There are certain dramatic problems in opera that cannot be solved. Take this scene from Giacomo Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” as a prime example.
“Quant’anni avete?” (How old are you?) asks the American Consul, Sharpless.
“Guess,” replies the child-bride to be, Cho-Cho-San (Madame Butterfly).
“Ten?”
“More,” the girl replies, coyly.
“Twenty?”
“Less. Just 15 exactly.”
It’s a conundrum opera companies have been facing ever since “Madame Butterfly” (based on the novel by John Luther Long and the play by David Belasco) had its premiere on Feb. 17, 1904. How do you convince an audience that Cho-Cho-San is in any believable way a girl of 15, while requiring the role be sung by a soprano with stratospheric vocal power? The answer, of course, is you can’t. It is a moment that almost always gets a laugh and from that moment requires a leap of faith.
In the case of L.A. Opera’s new production of “Madame Butterfly” starring Ukrainian soprano Oksana Dyka, which opened Saturday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, the leap is substantial.
Dyka is a formidable vocal talent, a singer whose future engagements include a succession of Toscas, Aidas and Normas, all mature, passionate women. There is nothing diminutive or childlike about her. So, justifiably, there was a wave of twitters when she proclaimed her age to be “15.” She is at least as old (and almost as tall) as Brandon Jovanovich who plays her husband-to-be, the callous “American vagabondo,” Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton.
The question is, how much does it matter?
As a vocal tour-de-force, Dyka’s Madame Butterfly is a triumph. Her phrasing is dulcet, her power impressive and her knife-edged high notes soar. Her rendition of the plaintive aria, “Un belle di” is as heartbreaking and lyrical as any you will hear live or on recording. Her steadfast commitment to the man who has accepted her love only to abandon her, leaving her with a child he has never claimed, is truly tragic.
At the same time, Dyka is anything but the doll-like innocent described in the libretto, a feat of dramatic magic the best sopranos in the role somehow manage to convey. We do not, however, ever question the depth of her devotion to her husband or her young son.
For his part, Jovanovich embodies the arrogant swagger and cultural insensitivity of Pinkerton while displaying an impressive ringing tenor voice. He is a young American singer to keep an eye on. He is a lady-killer in the most literal sense.
In L.A.  Opera’s most recent production of “Madame Butterfly,” director/designer Robert Wilson solved the opera’s literary problems through a unique style of theatrical abstraction that implied its own reality and left much to the audience’s imagination.
The current production, from San Francisco Opera, is decidedly traditional, dramatically and visually. When the marriage-broker (aka pimp) Goro (played with sleazy intensity by Rodell Rosel) describes the house with its movable screens, we see them. When Pinkerton’s ship sails into port, we see it at anchor throughout the long night vigil kept by Cho-Cho-San, her loyal maid, Suzuki (sung sympathetically by Milena Kitic) and her young son (a real crowd-pleaser), Garret Chang.
The sets and costumes are true to the Japanese setting, while making a point of Co-Co-San’s desire to become a good “American wife.” But it is a production that takes no chances or introduces any innovative thinking. For that you need a director like Wilson or the late Ken Russell, who ended his 1983 “Madame Butterfly” with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki and a curtain-closing skyline of neon signs blinking Honda, Sony and Toyota.
“Madame Butterfly” is a surprisingly political opera, a tragic culture clash between a young Japanese girl who despite her age is imbued with a surprising degree of personal (bushido) honor, and a cold-hearted naval officer who embodies all the qualities of opera’s first “ugly American.”
To its credit, the production does make this point clearly. And (whether intentionally or not) the casting of African American bass-baritone Eric Owens as the American Consul, Sharpless, makes his commentary regarding Pinkerton’s cultural insensitivity even more cogent.
The supporting cast features Stefan Szkafarowsky as the Bonze who disowns his niece for breaking with Japanese tradition, and Museop Kim as the rejected suitor, Yamadori.
Grant Gershon conducts Puccini’s score with precision and dramatic urgency.
He also prepared the chorus, which illuminates the wedding scene and melodious nightlong vigil, a scene that is enhanced by L.A. Opera’s decision to present the opera in two acts rather than three.