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Sarah Caldwell's Butterfly makes absorbing drama

MADAMA BUTTERFLY

Opera Company of Boston,

Conducted by Sarah Caldwell.

Yoko Watanabe as Butterfly and

Joseph Evans as Pinkerton on opening

night. Performers vary other dates.

The Opera House, Boston,

Event in The Tech Performing Arts Series.

January 25 & 28,

February 4 & 11, April 21 & 29.

By JONATHAN RICHMOND

IT WAS EASY TO FORGET the Opera Company of Boston's financial problems within a minute of Sarah Caldwell's taking the helm for the opening night of Madama Butterfly last Thursday. Caldwell showed she was back with a bang, creating an evening of drama so absorbing that none of the company's debtors who may have been in the audience had a chance to think of anything but the music.

There are three different Butterflys and two Pinkertons to be heard over the course of the six performances of Puccini's opera to be given this season. Yoko Watanabe kicked off with a Butterfly out of Greek tragedy: she wasn't always the most delicate of singers or actresses, but she projected her role with never-ending intensity and an ever-present feeling of looming fate.

Her singing may not always have been precise, but it was often exciting -- and Watanabe also has a sensual way of holding herself. Her voice could be radiant too, as when she dreamt of the return of Pinkerton, a passage simultaneously joyous and heartbreaking.

And Watanabe could sing in tones of deep tragedy. There was a feeling of horror slowly sinking in as Butterfly realizes the woman waiting outside is Pinkerton's American wife; then, as she veers towards death, there was an almost numbing serenity accompanying the rising vocal electricity. Butterfly's love for her son is made clear; there's poignancy as she gives him the American football Pinkerton left behind; there's acceptance as well as rawness in her emotions as she realizes she must give him to Pinkerton and herself to death. Altogether a powerful performance.

Pinkerton, as we all know, is not Mr. Nice. An American in Japan, he woos and weds the innocent Butterfly, and thinks nothing of returning later with his "real" wife. Joseph Evans certainly brought out Pinkerton's crudities, but he was also a fluent seducer, his singing firmly-directed but nicely-rounded and presenting a trap no Butterfly could avoid.

Markella Hatziano was an accomplished Suzuki, ravishing in all her singing and quite moving in her interactions with Butterfly. Noel Velasco did a good job of portraying the nastiness of Goro, the marriage broker. Chester Ludgin, though sometimes a bit unsure of voice, brought out the conflicts of the role of the American Consul: representing the American side, but not without a trace of guilt.

Sarah Caldwell's staging made the action focused and riveting, but it was the music from her enchanted orchestra that kept everyone pinned to their seats. Each orchestral voice shone through with deftness and spirit, far too beautifully to allow any handkerchiefs to be dry at the end.

350 tickets were sold last Friday afternoon as an offering from The Tech Performing Arts Series. The mob scene at the Wiesner Building, more reminiscent of a line-up for a Grateful Dead concert than for opera tickets, attested to the tremendous interest in opera at MIT -- if the price is right. We are grateful to the opera company for allowing this special sale to take place.

Those unable to purchase tickets last Friday should please see the announcement on p. 11 in this issue.