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Jun Kaneko’s abstraction strengthens the impact of Puccini’s verismo at SFO

Patricia Racette making her first entrance as Cio-Cio San in the current SFO production
Patricia Racette making her first entrance as Cio-Cio San in the current SFO production
by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera

Giacomo Puccini is best known for the verismo approach he took in almost all of his operas. Unfortunately, what counted for uncompromising realism on the opera stage a hundred years ago can easily devolve into cheap melodrama in the context of how opera has evolved since then. Among the operas currently performed today, Puccini’s Madama Butterfly may run the greatest risk of such devolution.

This afternoon at the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Opera (SFO) gave the first performance of an interpretation of this operatic war-horse, co-produced with Opera Omaha, where it premiered in 2006, which has successfully restored the full strength of the story’s dramatic impact through a uniquely imaginative strategy. Jun Kaneko, whose work was last seen here in his “all-digital production” of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Magic Flute in the summer of 2012, returned with a production design synthesizing inventively modernist abstraction with a few well-placed references to traditional Japanese theater. The result was nothing short of overwhelming, even for those who thought they have been Butterfly one (or more) too many times.

It turns out that, when properly executed, the detachment of abstraction can reinforce the emotional impact of a familiar story, rather than detract from it. This was evident as soon as the curtain rose on the kurogo, the “stage assistants” responsible for managing sets and props clad entirely in black to symbolize their “invisibility” to the audience. The modernist touch was also immediately apparent through the bare-bones approach to the set. Like the Japanese house that Goro is showing to Pinkerton, it is a space that can be configured for any purpose.

That is exactly what happened as the plot unfolded in this two-act version of the opera. At selected moments screens would descend to present real-time controlled digital animations. These could suggest the ambiance of the environmental setting, such as a stunning abstract depiction of a rising full moon. However, in the second act they provided a more explicit (but still abstract) view of the return of Pinkerton’s ship and, at the climax, enhanced the tragic confrontation between Japanese tradition and the consequences of Cio-Cio San trying to “Americanize” herself.

Once again, Music Director Nicola Luisotti presided from the podium in the orchestra pit with a brisk interpretation of the score that never lingered excessively. His balance of instrumental resources against the vocal resources on stage was always right on the money. It was also clear that everyone involved with the production knew exactly where the major climaxes were supposed to be, and Luisotti delivered those climaxes with the full force of brass and percussion that Puccini had scored.

In this production it was time for the male vocalists to shine. Brian Mulligan’s approach to Sharpless as the one person who can see the dire consequences even before the Bonze disrupts the wedding festivities was particularly acute, reinforced by his subtle use of dynamics to try (without success) to bring the voice of reason to both Pinkerton and Butterfly. At the same time Brian Jagde was not afraid to give us a Pinkerton whose flaws have come to the surface before we see Butterfly for the first time. This was a telling of the story in which the Americans in Japan were anything but “innocents abroad.”

Unfortunately, there were again inconsistencies in Patricia Racette’s execution of the title role. Some of the gasping that undermined her performance in Show Boat was again evident, along with several inconsistencies of pitch during the first act. However, her command of the situation began to increase in the second act as the path to Cio-Cio San’s tragic end grew clearer; and her delivery of the seppuku scene, during which Kaneko had the red “rising sun” disc of the Japanese flag begin to shed her blood, was downright overwhelming.

The result was not just a thoroughly memorable presentation of SFO’s second most performed opera. (203 performances have been presented or are scheduled to date.) This was a production that raised the bar for how this opera can be staged to previously unimaginable heights.