Puccini: Madama Butterfly

San Francisco Opera

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 15 October 2010 4.5 stars

SFO Butterfly Like the success of Carmen with children, Butterfly's popularity with West Coast audiences is counterintuitive. Japanese immigration to California has, at least historically, been troubled - and that cannot make the chauvinism and racism with defines the interactions between Pinkerton and Cio-Cio San easier to view. But one thing's for sure: however odd it seems, the SFO audiences want this opera. This is the 195th Butterfly performance at the SFO - a record that Bohème alone has surpassed.

And this Butterfly was worth the wait. The orchestra, under Nicola Luisotti, was on form, as animated and lithe as Puccini's score. Clarke Dunham's house for the Pinkertons, built in the 1980s for Harold Prince's Lyric Opera of Chicago production, was a treat: nestled under the branch of a gnarled tree, it had a delicate charm.

Soprano Svetla Vassileva's performance as Cio-Cio San pierced through this magic. While she started out with a wobble to her voice that was too wide to be deliberate and then passed up on the interpolated D-flat, she then delivered a luxurious spinto sound. It lent her character absolute command. Hers was a voice to be reckoned with.

Vassileva's performance made clear that when a firm spinto voice animates the character of Cio-Cio San, the cultural politics of Madama Butterfly need not seem so bleak. Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, the opera's librettists, presented Butterfly as a minuscule, vulnerable and (improbably) innocent Geisha. But as Vassileva's spinto sliced into the auditorium, she owned the hall. In direct contradiction with the libretto, then, her presence was awesome.

SFO ButterflyIn her best moments- yes, Un bel dì was among them - Vassileva made me conscious of an obvious truth about Madama Butterfly. Puccini was almost careless to score a role that demands an arresting spinto voice when Giacosa and Illica had tried so hard to diminish Cio-Cio San's power. The implications of this are rich for those whose postcolonial sensibilities make Madama Butterfly a cherished, but tainted, warhorse.

Vassileva's resistance found a complement in the production, which was not sold on the usual kimono-and-lotus-flower exoticism. "Exotic" objects were used, of course, but in contrast with recent productions - I have Anthony Minghella's in mind - did not assume undue prominence, nor loom as curios. Nagasaki was never made to seem more remote than it is. Furthermore, Cio-Cio San and Suzuki (Daveda Karanas) did not move with the usual self-effacing reserve. Karanas padded around the house with ease, and kowtowed only sparingly. Vassileva's melodramatic poses were delivered to her audience with as much boldness as was her voice.

Indeed, it was Stefano Secco in the role of Pinkerton who was wooden. I had the impression this was deliberate, since it made Cio-Cio San seem the stronger character of the two. Secco, who made his role debut at the SFO last season in the title role of Faust, was a dashing Pinkerton, notwithstanding his bleached-out locks (if these were meant to establish a genetic link with the blonde-haired Trouble, someone should have tended to his hairline better). Secco turned in an intense, if unmodulated, performance: loud, rich and brimming with vibrato throughout, as if he were impervious to the world around him. What could have been more appropriate? He even sounded like a cad.

Karanas' round, warm mezzo voice had the opposite effect. It contained within it an intense pathos that never undermined Vassileva's proud Cio-Cio San. The sonic contrast between Karanas and Vassileva's voice - one edgier, the other more inviting - made the drama of the second act, as Cio-Cio San and Suzuki watch time inch forward, all the more pronounced. I look forward to seeing how Karanas' skills translate to the roles of Waltraute and the Second Norn in the SFO's upcoming Ring cycle.

SFO ButterflyQuinn Kelsey (Sharpless) and Thomas Glenn (Goro) seemed to lack comparable vision in their roles. Sharpless was indeed a bit dull. That befitted his name but not the occasion. The role can be tremendous when Sharpless is a true foil to Pinkerton. With Kelsey's somewhat subdued voice, which did not handle the louder moments in the score well, Sharpless became a much more passive (read boring) role. Goro, meanwhile, was cast as an American in this production. In theory that could work, but Glenn's slight frame and 1970s suit made him seem the hepped up and wiry apprentice to a furniture salesman. His performance compensated to an extent, but overall he seemed too boisterous and benign by far.

This Butterfly was a winner for me, however. So long as an opera so transparently prejudiced continues to draw in today's urbane audiences, I cannot get enough of this thoughtful production.

Daniela Dessì and Brian Mulligan will replace Vassileva and Kelsey for most of the November performances and both will have to work hard to slot into such a well-conceived Butterfly.

By Laura Biggs

Photos credits: Cory Weaver

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Interview with Nicola Luisotti
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