Madama Butterfly, SF Opera

Written by:
Suzanne Weiss
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Daveda Karanas (left) and Svetla Vassileva in “Madama Butterfly”
Photo by Cory Weaver

Madama Butterfly

By Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica
Conducted by Nicola Luisotti
San Francisco Opera
Oct. 12-Nov. 27, 2010
(See video clip below.)

If it had been a soap opera instead of the other kind, they could have called it “As the House Turns.” As it is, the strongest sensation experienced from the Kabuki-inspired Harold Prince production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” onstage this fall at San Francisco Opera may be vertigo. I saw Prince’s take on the tale of the innocent Japanese geisha who falls for a callous American sailor with fatal results long ago in Chicago, where it was created for Lyric Opera and considered quite revolutionary (no pun intended). It made me dizzy and distracted then. Now, some 30 years and countless innovative stagings of masterworks later, it had the same effect — and it no longer is the stuff that theatrical wonder is made of.

The main element of Prince’s production is Butterfly’s little house on a hilltop overlooking the Nagasaki harbor (Clarke Dunham’s set design). Four kokens – black-clad stagehands – keep pulling the house around on ropes (more disillusion: the set actually is on an electronic turntable and the kokens are only there for show). During the wedding scene, the house turns; during the gorgeous love duet at the end of Act I, the house turns; during the Humming Chorus, the house turns and, if you haven’t already passed out in your seat, you actually can listen to the music. The kokens also perform a few other little tasks, like handing Butterfly’s maid a basket of petals to scatter during the flower duet and, most disastrously, pulling a red ribbon – meant to represent blood – from the heroine’s kimono as she is dying. However, at the Oct. 15 production, the ribbon was not visible on the dimly lit stage and the effect was lost.

As to the music, it is, of course, gorgeous – high up on almost everybody’s top 10 list and, after a breathlessly fast introduction, Nicola Luisotti’s orchestra delivered the lush score in fine style. As did some of the singers, notably Adler Fellow Daveda Karanas as the loyal servant Suzuki and baritone Quinn Kelsey as the sympathetic American consul Sharpless, the conscience of the piece. Stefano Secco was an adequate if somewhat wooden Pinkerton, the arrogant sailor who loves ’em and leaves ’em. His aria of remorse, “Addio fiorita asil,” near the end was well-delivered.

But it is the title character, onstage for most of the action, who carries this work, and Bulgarian soprano Svetla Vassileva was not quite up to the heavy lifting. She is very pretty and acts well, showing the heroine’s maturation from a 15-year-old bride to a saddened, abandoned but still-dignified wife. The problem lies with her voice, which has a rather unpleasant glottal quality, especially in the upper registers. She hit all the notes but they did not sound as beautiful as they should. In ensembles such as the lovely Flower Duet with Karanas, which was a highlight, she fared better but, alas, we know that this is the last time Suzuki and Butterfly will smile.

Come to think of it, “Madama Butterfly” is a bit of a soap opera. But it is a history lesson as well and, in this production, under the direction of Jose Maria Condemi and aided by excellent supertitles, you are acutely aware of the themes of Japanese insularity and American imperialism in the mid-19th century. That was interesting but still not enough to make this “Butterfly” soar.

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