Reviewed by Judy Richter
No matter how often one sees Giacomo Puccini's Madama Butterfly, a good production always reintroduces the opera's musical and dramatic treasures and might even reveal new ones. Such is the case with the San Francisco Opera production conducted by Donald Runnicles and starring soprano Patricia Racette. Their talents are wondrous from start to finish.
Runnicles opens the production with a brisk, yet crisply articulated overture. He then leads the orchestra and singers through the story's tragic emotional arc. He carefully underlines the early scenes' musical hints of what lies ahead for the 15-year-old Japanese geisha, Cio-Cio-San. She has naively fallen in love with the American naval officer, Lt. B.F. Pinkerton (tenor Franco Farina), who sees the wedding as a mere formality to allow him to have an attractive bedmate while he's in Nagasaki during the early 20th century.
Racette's performance is stunning. A former Adler Fellow with the Merola Opera program, SFO's respected training ground for promising young singers, she has developed that promise to become an internationally renowned performer. Her singing is exquisite with every note carefully placed and controlled, yet she never seems to strain throughout the demanding role. The high notes are thrilling, the emotions genuine. She understands the nuances of her character and conveys them with her voice and demeanor.
Farina, her Pinkerton, could learn a lot by watching and listening to her. Unfortunately, he doesn't seem to listen to anyone, for he doesn't blend well with Racette or with baritone Phillip Joll, who plays Sharpless, the American consul. (On the other hand, Joll's vibrato is so wide that it would be hard for anyone to blend with him.) Except for occasional scooping, Farina sings the notes accurately, but without artistry. His dynamics are limited to loud and louder. Truly beautiful blend is heard in Racette's scene with mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao as the loyal Suzuki. The best example is their Flower Duet in the second act.
Lesser roles also are well sung by tenor Steven Cole as Goro, the marriage broker; bass-baritone Philip Skinner as the Bonze, Cio-Cio-San's vengeful uncle; baritone Morgan Smith as Prince Yamodori, who wants to marry Cio-Cio-San after Pinkerton leaves; and soprano Melody Moore as Kate Pinkerton, the American whom Pinkerton marries after leaving. Skinner is another former Adler Fellow, while Smith and Moore are current Adler Fellows.
The production is by Ron Daniels with designs by Michael Yeargan. Simple but striking, it was created for staging at San Francisco's Golden Gate Theatre in 1997. That's when the War Memorial Opera House, which was damaged in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, was closed for repairs and renovations. While out of the Opera House, the company presented "Butterfly" and other popular operas Broadway-style, meaning as many as four rotating casts to permit daily performances. The idea was to introduce new audiences to opera by staging it in popular venues that usually present touring musicals.
Lighting designer Stephen Strawbridge adds to the production's beauty and drama. One particularly memorable scene involves the changing sky as Cio-Cio-San stays up all night awaiting Pinkerton, whose anchored ship is seen in profile. The SFO Chorus adds to the beauty of this scene with the Humming Chorus, followed by an expressive orchestral interlude. The chorus, directed by Ian Robertson, also excels in the wedding scene.
For more information, see the San Francisco Opera home page.