A Groundbreaking Indoor/Outdoor “Butterfly”

By Janos Gereben

San Francisco, 5/27/06:

Just as a gimmick, this would have been grand. Add to the idea of a free
public simulcast excellent execution, and – most importantly – a memorable
performance, and justified adjectives keep mounting.

With a handful of exceptions, San Francisco Opera was unheard and unseen
outside the War Memorial for the past two decades. In this electronic age,
no live broadcasts, a few PBS telecasts, and one recording – three general
directors have come and gone, producing only excuses: cost, difficulty,
lacking (supposedly) union support, possibly alienating paying audiences (an
argument heard before, famously, against telecasting sports). In short, see
no opera, hear no opera.

Enter David Gockley, and the very first performance under his new
administration is telecast live a block away from the Opera House. Tonight’s
opening of the summer season, with "Madama Butterfly," was attended by a
full house in the War Memorial, and thousands more in the Civic Center
Plaza. (The Opera’s own estimate of 8,000 seems too high.)

Under a forest of red lanterns, against the illuminated, 307-foot high Beaux
Arts City Hall dome, Staging Solutions’ 12×24 truck-mounted LED screen
displayed clear images from an eight-camera video system, with an improbably
good audio feed. I walked around the large plaza and found fewer dead spots
than inside the house (just try to hear in the back of the orchestra singers
downstage on stage left).

And, what good management and fine technology made possible, singers and
musicians made brilliantly worthwhile to hear and see. In 1988, when
Patricia Lynn Racette completed her Merola Program, she got her first big
role – Cio-Cio-San with Marin Opera. "What promise!," I made the obvious
observation in my review, but nobody could have imagined the heights she was
to scale. Of her many performances I heard in the past 18 years, none was
better than tonight’s.

With an exceptionally warm, powerful vibrato, effortless projection,
believable portrayal, clear, conversational diction, Racette sang a
performance to be treasured. In the insistent close-ups of the "Plazacast,"
Racette and Zheng Cao (Suzuki) succeeded against the impossible challenge of
conveying drama and intimacy even with faces 12 feet high.

Franco Farina’s Pinkerton was a fine debut. His is a strong, beautiful voice
in the middle range, a bit strained in some of the high notes, and cutting a
somewhat Falstaffian figure. In this realization of the Ron Daniels
production, good directorial novelties include Pinkerton grabbing and then
releasing Cio-Cio-San during the love duet, allowing Farina a moment of
believability. Michael Yeargan’s lean sets are still serviceable.

Another debut, that of Phillip Joll, as Sharpless, was unexceptional,
especially as he tended to fall behind the beat. The beat, not so
incidentally, which was mostly brilliant under Donald Runnicles’ baton, the
orchestra playing with the palpable enthusiasm of returning to work, with a
good new contract in hand. The orchestra and Ian Robertson’s chorus combined
in some exquisite moments. "Quanto cielo! Quanto mar!" shimmered gently,
bringing tears to some eyes with just a few notes of music, sung and played
to perfection.

Before the performance, Gockley addressed both audiences, with a special
welcome to the outdoor crowd. "Unabashedly, I coveted this job for 30
years," he said, pledging to extend "this great and glamorous opera company
into the future." Tonight was a splendid first step of that promised
journey.

The simulcast was the first FREE telecast from the War Memorial. Otherwise,
a 1981 "Aida" – with Pavarotti’s first Radames – was relayed live to Europe
and to a paying audience of 4,000 in the San Francisco Civic Auditorium. The
entire 1985 "Ring" was telecast to Davies Hall next door, as well as the
Opera House’s gala re-opening in 1997. At that event, the telecast audience
was surprised and delighted in the intermission when Leonie Rysanek, acting
on her own, walked across Grove Street to make a personal appearance in
Davies Hall, out of regard for the "TV viewers." At the "Butterfly" finale
on Saturday, it was Gockley who arranged appearances by the principal
singers before the audience at the Plaza, after their in-house curtain
calls.

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