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MOT's production of 'Madame Butterfly' has charm

George Bulanda
Special to The Detroit News

Inna Los (Butterfly) and Kimberly Sogioka (Suzuki)

Performing an old chestnut without adding an element of interest merely adds a few more age lines to a timeworn work.

However, in the operatic world a fresh voice can inject a lively giddy-up into an old warhorse.

That's what happened Saturday night at the Detroit Opera House in Michigan Opera Theatre's presentation of Puccini's Madame Butterfly, one of the world's most frequently performed operas.

This Butterfly wasn't an altogether alluring or satisfying performance, but its charms far outweighed its drawbacks.

Moldavian soprano Inna Los made her MOT debut as the naïve Japanese geisha Butterfly, and her portrayal was sweet and affecting. Her vocal weight and timbre recall a young Renata Scotto, a diva renowned for her interpretation of Butterfly. The similarity was particularly noticeable in her aria "Un bel di," but Los colored her portrayal with her own personality. Butterfly may be as delicate as Dresden porcelain, but she's got a hot temper at times, and Los isn't timid about revealing it.

And although she skipped the optional pianissimo high D-flat at the end of her entrance, a note that helps to underscore Butterfly's fragility, overall Los turned in a winning performance.

Butterfly's entrance is one of the most supernal moments in opera, but this one was disappointing. Instead of the typical lovely procession of women accompanying Butterfly with cherry blossoms delicately raining down, the women, twirling parasols, enter casually, without a sense of ceremony.

Director Bernard Uzan should have worked at making the moment more ethereal and cohesive. But he's to be commended for coaxing character subtlety and motivation from the cast. Too often, productions of Butterfly are theatrically wooden, coasting instead on the beauty of the music.

But one wonders why the second act was divided into two scenes, rather than presenting the work in three acts. Usually, the second act ends after the gorgeous Humming Chorus, a piece that seems to suspend time. That breathing space is needed before the drama continues. True, Butterfly originally was performed in two acts, but Puccini later revised it. Dividing it into three acts lends a stronger dramatic structure.

The Humming Chorus, incidentally, was exquisitely played by the MOT orchestra, with conductor Stephen Lord drawing out some striking tonal colors. Lord took a broad, romantic approach to the score without getting mawkish. The rise and fall of the music was gently exaggerated to fine effect.

Tenor Noah Stewart took on the thankless role of Pinkerton, the navy lieutenant who marries Butterfly, only to abandon her and marry an American woman. Although he could have imparted more arrogant swagger in the first act, Stewart projected genuine remorse in the final act. His voice has a darker quality than most tenors, but that purplish hue also makes it a more expressive instrument.

Los and Stewart blended splendidly in the Love Duet. Their characters' take on love is different — he wants earthy sex and she wants lofty romance — but passion is passion, and when they end on that white-hot high C, you know exactly what will follow as he carries her off.

Baritone Michael Mayes' warm, orotund voice served him well in making the U.S. Consul Sharpless a just and trustworthy character.

As Butterfly's faithful companion, Suzuki, mezzo-soprano Kimberly Sogioka gave a sensitive performance in her MOT debut, and she sang with a secure, plush instrument in the Flower Duet with Los.

And as Butterfly and Pinkerton's child Sorrow, little Morgan Armstrong was sweet as pie, and didn't display the fidgety mannerisms many children do in this role.

The scenery and costumes, originally designed for Cincinnati Opera, were appropriate but not particularly inventive.

All told, though, this Butterfly has more than enough merits to keep it afloat.

MOT's 'Madame Butterfly'

Through Nov. 23. The above cast repeats Nov. 19 and 22.

On Nov. 21 and 23, Donata D'Annunzio Lombardi sings Butterfly and Adam Luther portrays Pinkerton.

Tickets: $15-$128. Detroit Opera House, 1526 Broadway, downtown Detroit. 313-274-SING, michiganopera.org.