What could possibly go wrong? At the turn of the 20th century, a United States naval Lieutenant married a 15-year-old Japanese geisha in Nagasaki with a 999-year contract, cancelable in a month. He left to find a “real” American wife. The geisha gave birth to his child and innocently waited three years for his return. He did, indeed, return, but with his new wife, and asked her to give up the child.

Such is the basic outline of the high-drama opera, Madama Butterfly, by Giocomo Puccini (1858-1924), which pits the traditional Japanese Buddhist aesthetic against “modern” Christian America. The work, mounted by Greensboro Opera, received a lovely and moving presentation on Friday in the University of North Carolina Greensboro Auditorium. A cast of strong leads moved the nice-sized audience through the thrilling climaxes to the heart-rending conclusion.

The premiere of the opera in February of 1904 at La Scala in Milan was not successful. Puccini quickly changed the original two acts into three sections, and three months later, the new version was a hit in Brescia, Italy. Subsequently, the work has become a staple of the repertoire, being the sixth most frequently performed opera in the world – and for good reason.

In the opening act, Pinkerton, the naval Lieutenant, prepares to wed his soon-to-be wife, Cio-Cio San (Butterfly). In her excitement for the upcoming ceremony, she has converted to Christianity. Pinkerton, strongly sung by Cody Austin, filled the hall with his stentorian voice. The high tessitura of the role was not a problem for this dashing singing sailor.

Butterfly’s maid, Suzuki, was terrifically sung by mezzo Stephanie Foley-Davis, whose character is a constant reminder of the traditional Japanese culture throughout the opera.

Although warned about Butterfly’s innocence by the American consul Sharpless, Pinkerton brushes off any consequences. Baritone David Pershall portrayed the consul. His singing, along with Foley’s, was consistently solid and rich. At one point, Pinkerton and Sharpless together bring snippets of “The Star-Spangled Banner” into the score.

Goro, the obsequious marriage broker, was well-sung by Jacob Ryan Wright. His presence always reminded one that anything, including marriages, can be bought for the right amount of money.

Eventually, Butterfly arrived with her coterie of friends and family, singing one of the great tunes of the evening, which was recapped several times through the course of the opera. “Lyrico spinto, Puccini girl through and through,” Jill Gardner was Butterfly. Her demure acting contrasted with her strong, confident singing. Her beautiful singing of “Un bel di vedremo” in Act II was a show-stopper.

The marriage takes place, but the scene is interrupted by the fiery and angry Bonze, a Buddhist monk, sung by Donald Hartmann. He and the other marriage guests curse Butterfly for her conversion and marriage as well as for her abandonment of her culture.

Butterfly, obviously upset, is mollified by Pinkerton, and the two sing a rapturous duet before entering their house for what one presumes to be a night of passionate love-making.

In the first part of the second act, Butterfly, after three years, remains constant to Pinkerton despite offers of marriage partners from Goro and cautionary warnings from Suzuki. Sharpless arrives with a letter from Pinkerton that explains he has married an American, but the consul doesn’t have a chance to break the news to Butterfly. For her part, she is overjoyed to hear that her Pinkerton still remembers her.

In the proceedings, suitor Prince Yamadori, sternly sung by Ryan Hill, is rebuffed, despite his wealth. Butterfly introduces her son (Samuel Pershall) to Sharpless. Sharpless, realizing the depth of Butterfly’s devotion, leaves. A cannon is heard in the distance, and Butterfly knows that Pinkerton has returned. A wonderful scene ensues, with Butterfly and Suzuki singing together as they decorate the house with flower blossoms. The two, along with the child, await the morning, accompanied by the famously beautiful “Humming Chorus.”

The second part of act two reveals that Pinkerton has indeed returned, but with his American wife Kate, sung by Katie Horn-Pershall. He is too much a coward to face Butterfly. He tells Sharpless and Kate to break the news that they have come for the boy. Butterfly reluctantly agrees to give up her son, but only if Pinkerton comes to see her. He arrives, but she has already committed hara-kiri.

Puccini’s music is magnificent. The score and the action on stage flow seamlessly, mingling arias and duets with remnants of recitative. The composer mixes whole-tone scales with traditional Japanese tunes and fragments of the American national anthem, all in the service of Italian drama. Steven Byess, always attuned to the singers, led the orchestra, which played with gusto and power, so much so that it occasionally covered the singers, especially when they were not at the front of the stage. (This may be a problem of the auditorium acoustics more than the production.)

GOC artistic director David Holley was also producer and stage directorl the action was smooth and convincing. Lighting designer and technical director Jeff Neubauer provided effective nuance. The chorus was well-prepared by James Bumgardner.

This sumptuous production was dedicated to Laura Holley, wife of David, who unexpectedly passed away in August.

Madama Butterfly will be repeated Sunday afternoon, October 11. See the sidebar for details.