The practice of doublecasting principal singers — rotating performers on alternate nights — is a frustrating necessity.
Necessary because it allows the singers to perform their guts — and lungs — out, an abandon that’s the bedrock of good art.
And frustrating because, depending on what day you happen to see Arizona Opera’s glorious “Madama Butterfly,” and by all means you should, what I say may not pertain to your experience at all.
That’s because Indira Mahajan utterly steals the show, playing the innocent, 15-yearold Japanese geisha of the opera’s title named Cio-Cio-San, whose arranged marriage to an American sailor turns out to be little more than another of his stabs along a globetrotting quest for sex. So to speak.
While no one would mistake the singer for a Japanese teen, Mahajan’s voice is something like a beautiful epiphany: pure wrenching emotion matched with clarion precision. Her acting performance, meanwhile, is a thing of tender efficiency, never once slipping into the melodrama to which an overactive production of “Butterfly” could easily succumb.
Problem is, if you want to catch Mahajan, you’ll have to plan accordingly: She took to the stage opening night Thursday and continues tonight and Monday night before the largely sold-out show moves to Tucson. Her alternate during the Phoenix run of the production is Barbara Davis.
Mahajan may be the standout, but she’s supported by a fine cast: Tenor Kip Wilborn, (also double-cast) as the sailor Pinkerton, is a Lothario with the swept-back blond locks of a television news anchor and a voice that turns from unassuming to profound when he’s allowed to belt out. And Jane Dutton, as Cio-Cio-San’s maid, is consistently solid.
Colin Graham, Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ artistic director, is at the helm here, and his production takes its influence from Japanese kabuki, which means sparseness of set design (courtesy Neil Patel) and evocative lighting (Mark McCullough) allow the focus to fall squarely where “Madama Butterfly’s” drama is richest: Puccini’s score.
Against such staged minimalism, and with Australian conductor Anthony Walker at the baton, my ears identified something I had never before appreciated about the famous Italian composer’s work — how unmistakably cinematic it is, not underscoring the drama so much as announcing it in bright, bold letters.
Moments of anguish and rapture are greeted by great orchestral swells; glimmers of hope are met with the soft plinks of strings. Catchy hints of theme and melody repeat with playful little tweaks of variation. The end result is one of opera’s most accessible operas for modern sensibilities.
The only wrong note in Arizona Opera’s staging is the decision to forgo an intermission between the second and third acts.
That marks a return to Puccini’s original (and disastrously failed) version of the opera, resulting in a secondact “vigil” scene. Cio-Cio-San, hearing word of her American husband’s return, waits in vain for him to come through a night that stretches into absurdity. Mahajan paces the stage only to stop and mess with props while the orchestra churns along.
It’s a strangely laughable moment in an otherwise stirring production.
Arizona Opera’s ‘Madama Butterfly’
When: 7:30 p.m. today and Sunday, 2 p.m. Monday
Where: Phoenix Symphony Hall, 225 E. Adams St.
Information: (480) 784-4444 or www.azopera.org