Saturday, June 28, 2014

San Francisco Opera’s Madama Butterfly

June 21, 2014

Blessed with two powerful home-grown leads and a provocative 2006 production design by artist Jun Kaneko, stage director Leslie Swackhamer led an emotionally forceful interpretation of Butterfly. Kaneko’s designs are immediately unsettling, his characters clothed in patchworks of primary colors and backed by large screens hosting vivid, stark visuals. The approach is especially helpful to the longtime aficionado, who has likely seen a dozen or more performances of Puccini’s classic.

By the second scene, one begins to realize there’s a bit of color-coding going on, based on national themes. Pinkerton appears in bold red, white and blue with notes of yellow and orange, reflecting the sunrise colors of his latest fascination, Japan. Butterfly is married in virginal white, but spends her honeymoon in a robe of wild red, white and blue polka dots (the colors fading once her husband disappears across the ocean). Sharpless begins with colors of both countries, then shifts to a neutral brown as his very belief in nationality takes a dive. The use of these colors in Etch-a-Sketch animations, projected on screens, adds a needed visual element to the Humming Chorus that represents Butterfly’s night-long wait for her returning sailor. (The colors of doom are black and white, evident in the costumes of the Bonze and Pinkerton’s American wife.)

Racette possesses the kind of power heard from dramatic sopranos, but draws a divine balance in Butterfly, a role she has performed many times. She applies a pure lyric to the first act, then, having kept her powder dry, grows bigger and bigger along Butterfly’s wrenching descent, beginning with “Un bel di,” in which she alternates between an intimate conversation with Suzuki and powerful outpourings of faith and optimism in Pinkerton’s return. From there, she’s free to pull out the stops, but still takes moments to sculpt her dynamic phrasings, like the instruction to Suzuki to fetch her bridal gown so that Pinkerton may see her “the way he saw me that first night,” spelling out the line on a lovely fade and grow. Taken as a whole, Racette’s vocal force, combined with her always-excellent acting, creates perhaps the most emotionally powerful Cio-Cio-San I’ve seen.

Brian Jagde offer the same frustration as his most recent SFO performance as Cavaradossi: a tenor who unleashes a gorgeous Domingoesque lirico spinto and then proceeds to disappear. (Did Puccini’s tenors have lunch breaks written into their contracts?) His wedding-night duet with Racette, “Viene la sera,” is a thing of beauty, and he projects just the right cocky charisma in Pinkerton’s “Yankee vagabond” song, “Docunque al mondo,” to rationalize Cio-Cio-San falling for his blarney.

The rest of the primary cast follows suit in the element of intensity. Baritone Brian Mulligan presents a Sharpless more authoritarian and righteous than the usual, and bass Morris Robinson, Voice-of-God-in-residence, adds heft and a good helping of intimidation to the Bonze. Mezzo Elizabeth DeShong lends a powerful voice and dramatic seriousness to Suzuki, whose moments of servant sympathy are among the most heartbreaking in the opera (“She will cry so much!”). Her unison passages with Racette in the celebration of Pinkerton’s return, “Scuoti quella fronda di ciliegio,” are rapturous. Tenor Julius Ahn plays Goro in an even-handed fashion, although he gets thrown about the stage quite a bit!

The female chorus was much too subdued during Butterfly’s entrance, but the chorus did a lovely job with the backstage Humming Chorus, accompanied by star-like pizzicatos from the strings. Nicola Luisotti led his orchestra in a performance that took full advantage of Puccini’s manipulative moments: searing, ominous passages from the strings, the great upwellings of brass signalling the sighting of Pinkerton’s ship, the heart-stopping tam-tam gunshots as Butterfly comes to her final decision, and a final crescendo and cut-off that was like a punch to the sternum. This is not an opera for the faint of heart.

Miles Sperske is an even more adorable Sorrow than the usual (it always astounds me that any child that young could stand still as some strange lady screams into his ear.). The inclusion of traditional Japanese kurogo – black-clad performers delivering props and changing sets – was an especially tasty addition. Racette’s flair for comedy was on full display in Butterfly’s disdain for her suitor Yamadori (Efrain Solis) and Suzuki’s prayers (“Your Japanese gods are fat and lazy.”)

Through July 9, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $24-$379, 415/864-3330,

Images: Patricia Racette as Butterfly. Brian Mulligan (Sharpless) andBrian Jagde (Pinkerton). The first-act set. Photos by Cory Weaver.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 30-year opera critic and author of the novel Operaville, FREE today on Amazon Kindle. His rock band, Exit Wonderland, recently released its first video, “Rise Up.”

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