By Giacomo Puccini
Presented by San Francisco Opera
At the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor St., San Francisco, CA
Conducted by Marco Armiliato
Directed by Ron Daniels

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Following on the heels of its successful Broadway-style run of Puccini's La Bohème at the Orpheum Theatre last summer, the San Francisco Opera is doing the same this summer with his Madama Butterfly at the Golden Gate Theatre.

Broadway-style means that the opera runs six times a week with alternating casts, and ticket prices range from $25 to $70, lower than for the regular season. Four sopranos -- Rosalind Sutherland, Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet, Catherine Malfitano and Sylvie Valayre -- are singing Cio-Cio-San with four tenors -- Mario Malagnini, Carlo Scibelli, Hugh Smith and Luis Lima -- as Pinkerton. All other roles except the Bonze are at least double-cast.

Opening night, June 7, featured Scotland's Sutherland and Italy's Malagnini, both making their SFO debuts. The performance also marked Sutherland's U.S. opera debut.

Sutherland's Cio-Cio-San is vocally arresting with the requisite power and stamina, but her performance fails to touch the heart because it lacks the passion that made Malfitano's Cio-Cio-San so memorable in 1995.

Likewise, Malagnini's Pinkerton seems emotionally detached. Consequently, there's little spark between them even though the text and music say otherwise. Malagnini has a light voice that seems to come mainly from his head. Hence, it doesn't project as well as necessary.

Projection is a major requirement for this production because the orchestra sits in the open at audience level. In fact, the two front rows of seats have been removed to accommodate the orchestra. Conductor Marco Amiliato doesn't seem to make much effort to tone the orchestra down and allow the voices to come forth even though major arias are usually sung downstage center. Still, the orchestra's playing is glorious, supplying much of the passion absent from the singing of this cast.

Three San Francisco Opera Center graduates -- Chinese mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao as Suzuki, American baritone David Okerlund as Sharpless and American tenor Dennis Peterson as Goro deliver more fully realized performances. Cao's rich voice is especially notable. Okerlund's Sharpless is well-acted, but he has some projection problems. Peterson, who has previously sung Goro here, sings the role with artistry and authority. In his interpretation, Goro is the practical one, the voice of reality rather than the devious one seen in some interpretations.

Also featured opening night were Jere Torkelsen as the Imperial Commissioner, Frederick Matthews as the Official Registrar, Stephen Bryant as the Bonze, Mel Ulrich as Prince Yamadori and Nicolle Foland as Kate Pinkerton.

Foland makes her character sympathetic and sings beautifully. According to press notes for this production, some of the text in the Kate/Sharpless scene is sung by Kate rather than Sharpless to give her more prominence. The SFO made this change in 1995 and has kept it here. It works well, especially when the music is coming from Foland, one of the SFO's rising young stars.

The production is directed by Ron Daniels in his SFO debut. Daniels has extensive theatrical credits but has directed only one other opera. He has imposed the memory play concept on this production. A non-speaking actor, E.E. Grant IV, comes on stage before the opening bars and goes through a box with an American flag and other items. He's apparently Sorrow, the now-adult son of Pinkerton and Butterfly. He leaves shortly after the music starts, then returns for the final scenes. Kneeling downstage right, he watches everything with no apparent reaction.

It's an interesting concept, but it doesn't add anything to the production. In fact, many people might wonder what that man in a business suit is doing up there.

Otherwise, Daniels' direction works well. One effective device is the use of kuroko, black-clad stage assistants from the kabuki performing tradition. They deliver and remove props and slide the shoji screens that figure prominently in the production concept of designer Michael Yeargen.

In Act 1 of this two-act production (as originally conceived by Puccini), the screens are adorned with Chinese characters, which the press notes say are historically accurate for the early 20th century. In Act 2 the screens are covered with photo reproductions of real Japanese-English flash cards of the period, as if Butterfly were studying English while waiting for Pinkerton to return.

As a cannon shot signals the return of Pinkerton's ship, the Abraham Lincoln, to the Nagasaki harbor, the projected silhouette of a battleship slowly moves across the back of the set. It's a powerful image, one that continues through the Humming Chorus as night falls and the ship's lights come on.

Much credit here goes to the lighting design by Stephen Strawbridge in his first SFO assignment. His lighting continually enhances the settings and the drama.

The artistic team has come up with a lovely Flower Duet scene. Besides scattering flower petals as usual, Suzuki and Butterfly, aided by the kuroko, adorn the walls with flower sprigs. The scene is climaxed with a shower of flower petals gently raining down on the stage. It must be added that Sutherland and Cao aid this scene with their good blending.

The press notes credit Yuko Franklin, who joined the production team too late for acknowledgement in the program, for advising the directors and performers on Japanese customs and behaviors.

Because these summer productions are meant to attract people who might not otherwise go to the opera -- and presumably hook them on the art -- one must judge them on how well they seem to achieve that goal. While last summer's opening of La Bohème was more emotionally gripping, this production of Madama Butterfly most likely will bring some converts into the fold. It's intelligently staged, artistically designed and competently sung with beautiful orchestral playing. Other casts may bring more fire to the production, but the opening night cast is quite satisfactory or better.

For more information, see the San Francisco Opera home page.

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Monday, 08-Dec-2003 21:44:32 PST