A “Butterfly” Shock in San Francisco

A `Butterfly’ Shock
San Francisco Opera review by Janos Gereben
Sunday, December 02, 2007
Photos by Robert Millard

What in blazes are these people doing all around me, sniffling, wiping their eyes, some even blubbering softly? Why are they carrying on likethis? Why is my usually unsentimental companion sobbing? Why am I?
People: this is Madama Butterfly, for heaven’s sake, the old Puccini
potboiler, with music heard as often as “Jingle Bells” in December. And here, in the War Memorial on Saturday afternoon, we are attending the “premiere” (this season, that is) of the pretty but decade-old Ron Daniels/Michael Yeargan production, with a fine cast, but most of them heard numerous times in these roles right here, in San Francisco, an allegedly sophisticated, blasé city.

So what’s with general meltdown, and the ovation that followed the
performance, a massive crowd staying through all the curtain calls,
screaming for Patricia Racette, shouting “brava!” for Zheng Cao, hissing the debuting Brandon Jovanovich, one of the best Pinkertons in local history, vocally sensational, and such a mean – if handsome – cad that disapproval for his character is of the highest accolade. All this carrying on: so tearful, abandoned, happy, riotous…

What happened?

I wish I could explain, no, bottle and sell the stuff. It’s one of the
many mysteries of opera how an old warhorse can take the Kentucky derby by 10 lengths.

David Gockley sort of threw in five “Butterfly” performances at the end of the season, surely to help the box office (there was a good-size
standing-room crowd even at the quaint noon opening curtain), and he cast it well, but even he must know that it was the Opera Gods that made it all work this amazingly well.

For many years now, Donald Runnicles has kept surprising new listeners with his Puccini; some 10 years ago, I found his “Humming Chorus” exquisite, on par with Wagner and Britten performances for which he is better known. His musical direction today was solid gold all the way through (the Bonze scene alone getting a bit too heated orchestrally), both passionate and restrained, playful and elegant, deeply-felt but not sentimental, “just right.”

In Act 1, Jovanovich made an amazing debut, satisfying the tricky dichotomy of Pinkerton’s vocal requirements: a strong lyrical/narrative
sound with an (anti)heroic edge. The tenor – already well received locally as Don José in a recent Walnut Creek Festival Opera “La Tragédie de Carmen” – projected effortlessly in the 3,000-seat auditorium, with fine diction, and he cut a letter-perfect Pinkerton figure physically and dramatically. Stephen Powell’s debut as Sharpless added a self-effacing, selfless performance, fitting well into an ensemble bound by genuine, believable connections.

Patricia Racette has owned the role of Cio-Cio-San for many years here and around the world. With superb vocal and dramatic presence, she takes only a few minutes to overcome the challenge of portraying a 15-year-old. She and Jovanovich sang beautifully together, even if short on personal chemistry that would have improved the duet ending Act 1.

While one could “evaluate” the first act, the second half of the opera
turned so heady that no brain could be applied to it properly. Debuting
stage director Kathleen Belcher – showing the same restraint and
excellence dramatically as Runnicles imposed from the pit – opened the
curtain on Racette in an awkwardly reclining position, conveying the
feeling of discomfort, pain even. The soprano’s voice opened fully, and
she started pouring forth a golden sound of great beauty, but nothing
“pretty” – music at its ideal, uneffected grace. Belcher and Racette
“conspired” to deliver “Un bel di” in a simple, unposing, almost
conversational manner, its impact far greater than that of a “big number.”

Zheng’s Suzuki vitally interacting with Cio-Cio-San, Racette then kept
building and building the role, in a seemingly impossible feat, having
started from the highest plateau. Pinkerton’s brief return showed
Jovanovich in another character, but in the same great voice. Then what
happened through that known, unvaried, heavy, inexorable headlong rush
into the expected tragedy somehow opened all those faucets to tears and
deep emotions, creating a communal catharsis, on face of it not in the
same universe with That Opera. It was a “Butterfly” shockingly
different, astonishingly grand. Without a single bizarre, outrageous act
of “director’s opera” infamy, the crew and cast of this production gave
a shining example how simplicity, authenticity, and excellence can offer
THE alternative to “static opera.”

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