Thursday, October 14, 2010

San Francisco Opera, Puccini's "Madama Butterfly," 10/12/2010

San Francisco Opera's "Butterfly" has a little bit of everything: a stylized 1982 production from famed Broadway director Harold Prince, an intriguing use of Japanese theatrical devices, a solid dramatic ensemble and a knockout Pinkerton. Sadly, they also have a Butterfly who can't get off the ground.

Soprano Svetla Vassileva handles Cio-Cio-San's quieter passages with elan and delicate phrasing. She's an excellent actress who performs the traditional Japanese movements well, and delivers a frightfully good death scene. She also looks like Cio-Cio-San, with a petite bearing and dark, delicate features. But every time she presses past double-forte or above the staff she produces an overdone vibrato that can only be described as ugly. Three out of four might be all right for other roles, but in this case, Cio-Cio-San is the whole opera.

Italian tenor Stefano Secco is yet another Pinkerton who makes me wish the plot didn't depend on him disappearing for most of Act 2. His power and clarity are evident immediately, in Pinkerton's early line about the maid Suzuki, "From her chatter, she seems quite worldly." The line carries unusual drama for such a pedestrian thought, almost as though Puccini wanted to give his tenor a chance to clear his throat. Secco proceeds through a robust reading of Pinkerton's credo, "Dovunque al mondo," employing a forceful instrument that is not quite a spinto, more like a lirico with extra breadth.

Homegrown tenor Thomas Glenn delivers a sprightly Goro (dressed like Harold Hill from The Music Man), and baritone Quinn Kelsey was heavy on the simpatico as Sharpless, his Hawaiian features accenting the consul's empathy for the Japanese culture.

The Japanese-inspired presentation, based on Prince's original concept for Lyric Opera of Chicago, was well-executed by stage director Jose Maria Condemi and crew, notably the black-clad Koken - stage assistants who delivered props, created visual effects and turned the rotating set (and sometimes lay prostrate for 20 minutes at a time!). The mobile set gave the performance a cinematic feel, particularly in Cio-Cio-San's intentionally overlong night-wait for her American husband. By moving slowly from room to room, the audience could see several tableaux of the restless residents, wife, maid and child. I also enjoyed the American touches in Butterfly's Act 2 household, including her very American dress and two deck chairs from the USS Lincoln.

Under Nicola Luisotti, the orchestra revealed the many small gems of Puccini's musico-dramatic genius, such as the deceptively sweet pizzicatos and lush string melody beneath Sharpless's ill-fated reading of Pinkerton's letter, and the remarkable use of silence around the appearance of his American wife. More than ever, I am convinced that Puccini used the tam-tam preceding Cio-Cio-San's suicide specifically to scare the bejeesus out of his audience.

Through Nov. 27 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. (Daniela Dessi will play Cio-Cio-San beginning Nov. 5). $20-$360, 415/864-3330,

Image: Daveda Karanas (Suzuki), Austin Kness (Prince Yamadori), Thomas Glenn (Goro), Svetla Vassileva (Cio-Cio-San) and Quinn Kelsey (Sharpless). Photo by Cory Weaver.
Tucked away in the opera shop I found the new collection of Verdi arias by soprano Sondra Radvonovsky, who took the city by storm in last season's Il Trovatore. Do yourself a favor and get it. It's available at

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic. His novel, Operaville, will be released this winter, with a companion CD of arias by soprano Barbara Divis.