Review: ‘Madame Butterfly’ at San Francisco Opera (*****)

(Emma Bushnell)

(Rating: *****)

(“Madame Butterfly” plays at The War Memorial Opera House on June 27, July 3, July 6 and July 9, 2014.)

How often does one begin a review unable to decide what to praise first? Anyone tasked with critiquing the San Francisco Opera’s “Madame Butterfly” will be in the unusual position of trying to provide adequate recognition for the opera’s excellent components while being unable to rustle up any negative comments to offset them.

This is one of those rare productions where everything comes together perfectly, coalescing into a whole greater then the sum of its parts: Jun Kaneko’s strikingly simple design, Leslie Swackhamer’s brilliant direction, Nicola Luisotti’s flawless orchestra, and, of course, a brilliant cast of singers.

Puccini wrote “Madame Butterfly” at a time when Western fascination with “the orient” was high. The opera is a story of culture clash between Japan and America, at times comically heightened by Puccini’s personal ignorance regarding both countries. These moments manifest themselves in some hilariously overt uses of the American national anthem in Navy man Pinkerton’s sections as well as a musical introduction to a Japanese character which is reminiscent of a theme from Arthur Sullivan’s “The Mikado” (another play about Japan written by a European who had never been).

Beneath the turn of the century obsession with Japanese paraphernalia and foreign customs lies the timeless story of the geisha who dares to believe her dream of love and prosperity will be realized with an American suitor, only to have it dashed in the cruelest manner possible. 

Patricia Racette is a privilege to watch as Cio-Cio San. Her voice is powerful, nuanced, and backed by electrifying acting. Though the audience knows how the opera must inevitably end, Racette’s energetic portrayal of Cio-Cio San’s determination and her willful ignorance of the reality she faces make us ache with hope till the last that things will indeed go her way. This story is inarguably first and foremost Cio-Cio San’s, and Racette carries the opera effortlessly and raises the tone of the entire production.

Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio San in San Francisco Opera's production of Madame Butterfly. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.
Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio San in San Francisco Opera’s production of “Madame Butterfly”. Photo Credit: Cory Weaver.

Racette is in good company on stage. Tenor Brian Jagde is perfect as Pinkerton, Cio-Cio San’s jilting lover. Jagde’s expressive voice beautifully complements Racette’s soprano and Luisotti’s lyrical orchestra. He plays Pinkerton genuinely, which serves the story well. We love to hate Pinkerton not because he is a true villain, but because we all know (and have perhaps dated) Pinkertons — men who feel deep remorse for their arrogant actions, but who still literally run offstage to escape the messes they create rather than take responsibility for them.

Some column inches of this review must also be devoted to mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Cio-Cio San’s maid, Suzuki. DeShong’s colorful lower register and superb physical acting bring a deep richness to Suzuki, a woman attempting to be at once responsible for and obedient to her mistress. DeShong’s evocative portrayal heightens the drama in the second act, when her distress at having to inform her mistress of Pinkerton’s arrival with an American wife stirs the audience into the appropriately raw emotional place to be devastated by the finale.

These actors, in addition to the excellent Brian Mulligan and Julius Ahn as Sharpless and Goro, respectively, are all well served by Swackhamer’s inspired direction. In her director notes, Swackhamer writes that she wanted to focus on the story of “Madame Butterfly”, and not on the oriental fetishism. It shows — the reason her direction and Kaneko’s glorious design are so effective is because they are striking while first and foremost serving the story onstage. Kaneko’s production, originally commissioned by Opera Omaha, was clearly a direct inspiration to Swackhamer, who uses the levels of his metaphorically downward spiraling platform and simple shoji screen to maximum effect. The cast is small, but fills the stage in constant dramatic tableaux.

Being in my twenties, I have seen relatively few productions of “Madame Butterfly”, so calling this the most accomplished production I have attended may not carry much weight. Fortunately, you do not have to take my word for it — take that of the elderly gentleman next to me who, making his way out of the theater with his walker, wouldn’t stop shaking his head and saying to his companion, “That was the best ‘Butterfly’ I have ever seen.”

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“Madame Butterly”, by Giacomo Puccini, co-produced by the San Francisco Opera and Opera Omaha.  Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Sung in Italian with English supertitles. Conductors: Nicola Luisotti (Jun 15, 18, 21, 24, 27, Jul 3), Giuseppe Finzi (Jul 6, 9). Director: Leslie Swackhamer. Production Designer: Jun Kaneko. Lighting Design: Gary Marder. Chorus Director: Ian Robertson. Choreographer: Melissa Noble. Fight Director: Davie Maier.

Cio-Cio San: Patricia Racette. Lt. B. F. Pinkerton: Brian Jagde. Suzuki: Elizabeth Deshong. Sharpless: Brian Mulligan. Goro: Julius Ahn. Kate Pinkerton: Jacqueline Piccolino. Prince Yamadori: Efrain Solis. The Bonze: Morris Robinson. Commissioner: Hadleigh Adams.

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