Back in the day, the marketing of suspense movies sometimes included asking viewers to keep a secret. A typical example, from the trailer for "Strait -Jacket," the now cult-camp classic from 1964, is Joan Crawford's plea: "Don't reveal the surprise shock ending."
A similar request could have been made of the audience that attended Lyric Opera Baltimore's opening night performance of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" at the Modell-Lyric Performing Arts Center. In this case, though, the message could be worded a little differently: Don't reveal the surprise schlock ending.
Don't worry -- no spoiler here. But I have to say that stage director James Harp's addition to the finale is so over-the-top that it undercuts the integrity of the whole production. Even in an age when you can find countless directorial concepts that tweak or ignore the librettos to operas, this particular alteration comes across as awfully indulgent.
(UPDATE 11/10: Now that the performances are over, I can specify the egregious directorial touch: Suzuki stabbed Pinkerton to death during the closing seconds of the opera, an action I would call unjustified on textural, musical, theatrical, cultural -- you name it -- grounds.)
There are other annoyances in Harp's approach, including superfluous, silent appearances by several characters revealed behind a sliding screen when someone else sings about them. (One of those peek-a-boo sightings understandably set off titters in the house Friday night.)
The director is on surer ground when he focuses on the culture clash in the tragic tale of Butterfly, the young Japanese geisha, and Pinkerton, the American naval officer who enters into a supposed marriage with her while on leave in Nagasaki.
Harp brings out several telling details in that collision of values and expectations, though, here, too, he goes a step too far. Inserting a couple of drunken, ugly-American buddies for Pinkerton in Act 1 is effective enough. But having Butterfly interact a great deal with a crucifix and a priest (the opera includes no such character) in Act 2 is just plain heavy-handed.
On the plus side, Harp draws vivid acting from the cast throughout; the emotional twists in the plot are delivered with considerable force.
Helping immeasurably to sustain that force is the beautifully nuanced, affecting portrayal of the title role by soprano Asako Tamura.
She makes every gesture, every reaction ring true. Note the disarming mix of tenderness and apprehension that falls across her face when, in the first act, Butterfly asks Pinkerton to "love me a little." Note, too, how Tamura reveals just how profound the impact is on Butterfly when, at long last, the sound of a cannon is heard announcing the return of Pinkerton's ship in Act 2.
The soprano's voice does not have the tonal weight to fill out Puccini's soaring melodic lines completely, but her phrasing has considerable eloquence.
Mezzo-soprano Mika Shigematsu likewise brings great stylistic authority to her performance as Butterfly's caring servant Suzuki. Her warm, vibrant tone serves the music well, nowhere more compellingly than in the final scene.
As Pinkerton, Chad Shelton offers finely detailed acting that lets glimmers of sincerity shine through the caddish exterior. Other than pinched, pitch-shy high notes, the tenor sings with finesse and style. Timothy Mix is a solid presence, vocally and dramatically, as the American consul, Sharpless.
Philippe Pierce is thin-toned, but telling, as the cynical marriage broker, Goro. The chorus does reliable work. (In another questionable direction from Harp, the "Humming Chorus" is not delivered offstage, as usual, but with the choristers sitting down in Butterfly's house.)
Excepting some wiry-sounding cellos, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is a welcome presence in the pit, digging into the riches of Puccini's prismatic score under the impassioned conducting of Steven White. He gives the most heart-stirring passages in the opera wonderfully spacious treatment.
As a result of limited finances, Lyric Opera Baltimore can only afford this one production for the 2014-2015 season. That constraint also seems evident in the minimal set for this "Butterfly," but Donald Edmund Thomas' sensitive lighting design helps to fill in a good deal of atmosphere.