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The Pedestrian Opera Review: “Madama Butterfly” at SF Opera

“Madama Butterfly” at SF Opera


I had never seen Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” before last Tuesday.

For those who had, I imagine the San Francisco Opera production was superlative. It integrated the exceptional voice of Patricia Racette who is well-known for this role with the unrestrained and colorful design imagination of Jun Kaneko.

The set rivaled the singing. A spiraling ramp down onto concentric circles leading to a round raised platform stage left with a large diorama behind comprise the spare set provides a canvas for Gary Marder’s extraordinary lighting design in ever-changing lush and saturated colors.
Kaneko’s costume and projection designs are overdone and tires the eye with its “busy-ness.”
(Kaneko designed “The Magic Flute” at SF Opera in 2012).

A vertically hung display of polka-dotted and striped kimonos greet the audience at the pre-set, and that same eye-boggling pattern and color scheme are used throughout. The American Consul and Naval Officer have red-striped labels on parti-colored suits, and it is truly a variegated world.

For those aficionados who have seen this opera perhaps multiple times and who mainly attend to appreciate the exceptional voices, this production was perhaps unique and appealing in its quirky design and remarkable singing.

For neophytes like myself, I found it distracting and difficult to believe,

If you don’t know the story: The US demanded entry to Japan in the later 19-century. A sailor—well, an officer—could “rent-a-bride” for his stay. Lt. Pinkerton “marries” 15 year old Cio-Cio-San whose noble family has been impoverished since the Emperor directed her father to commit seppuku (ritual suicide). She takes the initiative to convert to Christianity for which she is ostracized by the community. Pinkerton ships out; Cio-Cio-San (pronounced “cho-cho-san”) discovers she is with child. Instead of moving on to the next bidder, she waits for Pinkerton’s return, hopefully scouting every ship that comes to port with a spy-glass—for three years! When the lieutenant finally returns to claim his son, he is accompanied by his American wife. Our geisha is devastated. She gives him his three-year-old son, and kills herself.

Patricia Racette made her opera debut with this role in 1988 at 22 with the now-defunct, traveling San Francisco Western Opera whose mission was to bring opera to the hinterland. The idea of using such a young voice was criticized (though Maria Callas sang the lead in Cavalleria Rusticana at 15).

Critic Bernard Holland said of Ms. Racette’s 1988 performance, "Patricia Racette was an especially compelling actress as Cio-Cio San, and it was acting achieved through music – just as opera performance should be. Yet Miss Racette has a soprano voice that, while musically and technically reliable, is never terribly luxurious in sound."

In the 26 intervening years, Ms. Racette’s voice has bloomed into a powerful and emotionally moving instrument. However, my suspension of disbelief was challenged with a 49 year-old woman playing a girl from ages 15 to 18.

The non-Asian cast does not endeavor to don makeup that would make them believably Japanese; they wear wigs and kimonos, but that is the extent of their change of persona.

Lt. Pinkerton is played by Brian Jagde with “Ken Doll” looks and a cookie-cutter operatic tenor. His highlight is in his climactic act of shamefully fleeing from confronting Cio-Cio-San Baritone Brian Mulligan plays a sympathetic American Consul gives a moving performance.

It is the performance of diminutive mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki, handmaid to Madame Butterfly, that is most impressive both vocally and dramatically.

Music Director Nicola Luisotti’s directing brings the SF Opera Orchestra to more than its usual excellence

If you are a designer, or if you know the opera well, you may truly enjoy this.

I look forward to revisiting this work when a younger lead plays the role with a more traditionally stage design.

Music by Giacomo Puccini, Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa
Performances r
emaining: June 27, July 3, July 6, July 9,
San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
301 Van Ness Avenue
San Francisco, CA

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