San Diego Opera Revives a Beautiful “Butterfly”

Without a doubt one the most beautiful co-productions ever created for San Diego, the Michael Yeargan/Francesca Zambello “Madama Butterfly” was awarded a rapturous audience reception during last night’s opening night performance in Civic Theater.

If memory serves, opera-goers were more divided in their sentiments the first time around in 1998. Strong objections were raised to the creators’ banishment of the quaint-little-Japanese-house-on-the-hill settings one usually sees in “Butterfly” productions, and to the use of an American Consulate for much of the action in Acts One and Two.

Worse, with their suggestive use of the American flag as an essential part of the mise en scene, designer Yeargan and the show’s original director, Zambello, seemed to be emphasizing the opera’s mild anti-Americanism – an element of the piece, by the way, that before the invention of Supertitles went largely without notice. Then suddenly, everybody could read what a total S.O.B. US Naval Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton really is!

In today’s volatile political climate with regard to US foreign relations and the still seething discontent over immigration issues, an opera representing the callous misadventures of a jingoistic “America forever” military officer who knocks up an adoring 15-year-old Japanese girl and leads her to suicide is almost as incendiary as newspaper images of the atrocities at Abu Ghraib. It’s also impossible to forget the bad behavior of a few American servicemen who have provoked protests in Japan and Okinawa in the not too distant past.

The truth is, of course, that sailors of all free nations have historically indulged in pleasurable debaucheries while ashore, and many a naïve young lady has been left with a living souvenir.
In any event, if this production offended anyone, you would not have known it last night from all the cheering during the curtain calls – although I must say, I cannot recall the poor singer playing Pinkerton ever being booed quite so loudly and heartily! It’s almost certain Uruguayan tenor Carlo Ventre had been warned about our little wild-west habit of booing the villain here in San Diego. “The louder they boo, the more they love you,” would have been my message to Ventre. He proved a highly creditable Pinkerton, believable dramatically, and capable of much beautiful singing. He has a lovely strong voice, though for me it lacks the ideal ringing sound I like to hear in this part.

As for, Cio-Cio-San, the hapless Butterfly pinned into Pinkerton’s collection, soprano Patricia Racette finds herself in ever-more comfortable territory; she has sung this role many times now, even recently on a Metropolitan Opera live-to-theater HD video relay, and the experience shows in every little nuanced vocal and physical gesture.

Racette does not achieve, nor does she attempt the little-girl vocal sound (made most famous by Italian soprano Toti Dal Monte on some now ancient recordings), nor does she float an ethereal high D flat during her entrance, but her voice does grow in strength as the action proceeds. That said, something that she does on stage (perhaps coached by stage director Garnett Bruce) makes her seem actually more emotionally vulnerable rather than less by the time of Act Three. Resignation and a determined suicide seem like another story altogether. It’s almost as if she’s been taken over by a fatal illness.

As is so often the case in San Diego, all the parts are well cast. Cio-Cio San’s companion, Suzuki, is superbly characterized and sung by familiar mezzo-soprano, Suzanna Guzmán, and, as staged, her vigorous attack on the comically tactless Goro, tenor Joseph Hu, is a memorable moment. Baritone Malcolm MacKenzie is marvelous as Sharpless, the American Counsel. (Sharpless. What a politically nasty name that is!). MacKenzie makes a morally positive, highly masculine impression vocally and dramatically, and you actually like the guy. He goes a good distance toward assuaging our collective guilt. The angrily disapproving Bonze, who arrives impressively as a terrific stage tableau, complete with a golden Buddha, is impressively sung by bass-baritone, Scott Sikon. The stage picture here is fabulous: mean old Uncle Bonze raging upstage as if in a hallucinatory realm that leaves Cio-Cio San truly “rinnegata” and not so “felice” (“rejected” and “happy”) in isolation down front.

Oddly, last night baritone Jason Detwiler seemed uncomfortable and not sure of himself as Prince Yamadori, Cio-Cio San’s unwanted wealthy suitor.

As mentioned straight off, this production is a stunner. It is simultaneously detailed and minimalist, and locales dissolve into one another in a seamless dreamlike fashion. Butterfly’s house is both nowhere and everywhere. Showers of flower petals inundate the stage when it comes time for Suzuki and Cio-Cio San to welcome Pinkerton back; and the famously heartbreaking night-watch with its beautiful humming chorus segues into a scene of bustling early morning activity down at the seaside quays. Terrific effects are achieved with lighting (bravo lighting designer Alan Burrett!), and the theatrical coup achieved by the dropping red curtain during Butterfly’s death, is not spoiled by knowing about it in advance.

Not to forget Butterfly’s little Trouble – the scene-stealing toddler on this occasion being impossibly cute Billy Temple. And, as usual, the chorus does superlative work under the direction of Timothy Todd Simmons. Conductor Edoardo Müller gets top-flight work out of the San Diego Symphony – and I particularly loved the stretched-out final chords that sound during Pinkerton’s anguished off-stage cries of “Butterfly! Butterfly!”

At the final curtain, you’ve just got to say “Wow!” This one is worth seeing twice!

Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton: Carlo Ventre
Suzuki: Suzanna Guzmán
Goro: Joseph Hu
The Bonze: Scott Sikon
Sharpless: Malcolm Mackenzie
Imperial Commissioner: Joesph Pechota
Registrar: Tom Oberjat
Prince Yamadori: Jason Detwiler
Kate Pinkerton: Crystal Jarrell

Conductor: Edoardo Müller
Director: Garnett Bruce
Scenic Designer: Michael Yeargan
Costume Designer: Anita Yavich
Lighting Designer: Alan Burrett
Wig and Makeup Designer: Steven W. Bryant
Chorus Master: Timothy Todd Simons
Supertitles: Scott Heumann
Production conceived by Francesca Zambello

Saturday May 9, 7 pm
Tuesday May 12, 7 pm
Friday May 15, 8 pm
Sunday May 17, 2 pm
Wednesday May 20, 7 pm

Tickets and info: http://www.sdopera.com/

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