The interesting thing about Giacomo Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly,” with which Boston Lyric Opera opened its season on Friday, is how both the title character and the piece itself generate their stature out of sheer zeal. Butterfly’s all-consuming faith in the eventual return of Pinkerton, the caddish American naval officer she weds, burns bright enough to cast dramatic shadow on the character’s essential simplicity. Likewise, the plot is formulaic and predictable — few denouements come with more aggressive foreshadowing. But Puccini’s faith in his skill rivals his heroine’s devotion: “Butterfly” might be melodramatic, but so brilliantly, ruthlessly melodramatic as to summon, almost by coercion, a tragic dimension. And mostly, BLO’s new production had the good sense to keep that dramatic purity unsullied.
Director Lillian Groag added a short Japanese-drama-flavored prelude — Noh masks and drums — briefly suggesting a more radical cross-cultural translation. But by the time Butterfly made her entrance through a screen of spinning Japanese parasols, it was clear that the staging would err on the side of conventionality. Still, if the production didn’t say anything new about the opera, it reiterated the old verities with lucid storytelling, the focus of each scene’s action clear. Marie Anne Chiment’s costumes were appropriately sumptuous; Robert Wierzel’s lighting was especially good, tracing emotional shifts in ways both subtle and splashy. John Conklin’s elegant set stretched a horizontal stripe across its paper walls, as if to imprint the entire opera with the horizon line that Butterfly scans for Pinkerton’s return.
Among many BLO debuts, there was much good singing. Yunah Lee’s Butterfly was first-rate: a big voice, projecting a wealth of focused color (particularly in the middle range), and excellent attention to the musical line. As Sharpless, the American consul and the opera’s conscience, Weston Hurt was equally outstanding, combining restrained acting, beautiful Italian, and a fluid, easy baritone. Kelley O'Connor warmed into her darkly-patinated mezzo-soprano as Suzuki; Michael Colvin gave the comic role of Goro a welcome surplus of vocal and musical skill. As Pinkerton, Dinyar Vania impressed more with his potential: a naturally lovely tenor, but one locked into an inflexible production that tightened at the top. In his Act I duet with Lee, though, a handful of freer phrases revealed a reserve of vibrancy. (In the pit, Andrew Bisantz brought forth solid momentum but little restraint, the result being a loud, top-heavy orchestral sound that too often swamped the voices.)
The staging only faltered where Groag sought to put directorial spin on familiar set-pieces: having the Bonze (David Cushing) disown Butterfly with Hammer-Films lighting and amplified reverb was a bit too strange; having large prop flowers descend from the wings for the Flower Duet was a bit too obvious; having Pinkerton wander onstage during Butterfly’s “Un bel dì” was an unacceptable distraction. But, on balance, the lithe and even lurid energy with which the opera makes its dramatic insistence was honored. BLO’s “Butterfly” was at its best hewing to the example of that horizon line: keeping an eye on what really matters.