Review: The Remaking of San Francisco Opera Part III – “Madama Butterfly’, December 8, 2007

Previously, I have cited the San Francisco Opera production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”, conceived by Ron Daniels with sets by Michael Yeargan, as an extraordinary experience.  The production, utilizing modern techniques of stagecraft, set design and lighting technique, sets out to recreate the emotional impact that a performance of the David Belasco’s English language play had on Puccini.

[Below: Sharpless (Stephen Powell), left,  and Lieutenant Pinkerton (Brandon Jovanovich) observe the women’s chorus preceding the entrance of Madama Butterfly; edited image, based on a Terrence McCarthy photograph; courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Even though he was unable to understand the spoken words in Belasco’s “Madam Butterfly”, he obviously did not need to do so, because the intensely theatrical stage business and the contemporary state of the art lighting was so impressive that the performance transcended the language barrier. It also provided Puccini with the inspiration to create the 20th century’s most popular opera.

Daniels and Yeargan have amalgamated much of the current styles of performing “Butterfly”.  On the one hand, the production uses period costumes, with regard for historical accuracy, and incorporates believable acting in which gesture and stage movement has clear motivation.

[Below: Patricia Racette as Madama Butterfly; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

But it also uses surreal elements, from the half dozen koken whom we are to regard as invisible while they wait on stage to move the sets, and, most distinctively, the use of back projections for the American battleship (see the review Puccini, Daniels, Yeargan and Racette Team for Masterful S. F. Butterfly – June 18, 2006 for a picture of the battleship projection) or, as described below, the portrayal of Cio Cio San’s “Japaneseness”.

In these early years of David Gockley’s tenure as shepherd of the San Francisco Opera flock, if one were to assess which category of performances is the most completely realized artistically, it may well be the Puccini operas.  Gockley has given the weight of his General Directorship to assuring a prominence to the Tuscan master’s creations, and both current Musical Director Donald Runnicles and his designated successor, Nicola Luisotti, are acknowledged and accomplished advocates for Puccini’s works.

The performance

Runnicles was in the pit for this performance, the second set of San Francisco Opera “Butterfly” performances that he has led in two consecutive calendar years, although, because the opera runs on “academic” rather than calendar years, technically, the opera was not performed during the intervening 2006-07 season. (See the hyperlink two paragraphs above for my comments on a June 2006 performance.) I am unable to identify an opera that Runnicles and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra do not perform well, but there is a special rapport that this extraordinary team brings to “Butterfly”.

[Below: Stephen Powell is Sharpless; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph; courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The first two principals introduced are Pinkerton (Brandon Jovanovich) and Sharpless (Stephen Powell), in their debut roles for San Francisco Opera).  From their first notes it is clear that the deficiencies I observed in the 2006 male leads were not present with this pair.

In addition to having the requisite voices for these two glorious roles, they both exhibited the “right look” for these parts .  Jovanovich plays the reckless, exuberant and youthful American officer (who has determined to “go Native” with a long-term sexual liaison in his  onshore off hours in the manner of French – but not British –  military officers).

[For an extensive discussion of the 19th century habit of some French military men to “go native” with the indigenous women of lands the French occupied, and its impact on the story of Delibes’ opera “Lakme”, see:  Sarah Coburn’s Ravishing Tulsa Opera Lakme – February 29, 2008.]

Powell plays with appropriate gravitas the American foreign service civil servant, who obviously prefers the British policy of discouraging such affairs, but has no authority to interfere with the lieutenant’s adventures.

Below: Brandon Jovanovich as Lieutenant Pinkerton; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The sets alert us to Butterfly’s pre-existing fascination with stuff Americana, decorative posters of irregular size stuck to the walls of the Japanese dwelling. Butterfly’s family and circle of friends have committed to humoring her cross-cultural exploration, and 14 women in kimonos, carrying parasols, act as the heralds of Butterfly’s stunning entrance.

Patricia Racette enters wearing Butterfly’s wedding kimono.  In Racette’s first notes, we notice an unexpected vocal flutter, but the technicians recording the performance for a later cinemacast said she was spot on in the previous nights (which also were recorded) and spot on will be what is heard in the permanent record.

[Below: Cio Cio San (Patricia Racette) and Lieutenant Pinkerton (Brandon Javonovich) in a wedding ceremony engaging the Imperial Commissioner (Jere Torkelsen) and Official Registrar (William Pickersgill); edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Butterfly and Pinkerton each are pleased with what they see. Screens move to display an elaborate painted background of blossoming cherry trees, birds and other delights with a color palette in which golds, browns and white predominate.

The elegant ceremony is abruptly brought to an end as the Bonze (Raymond Aceto in yet another impressive performance) intones his official condemnation of her formal repudiation of her religion.

[Below: the Bonze (Raymond Aceto) confronts Cio Cio San (Patricia Racette), with koken seen at right of picture; edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

At that point, the background turns red with the gray image of a Japanese religious temple dominating the scene.  Whenever that image is displayed, and it comes back aggressively with her ritual suicide, we become conscious of how deeply the Japanese culture, from which she appears to be trying to escape, holds her.

With the Bonze’s denunciation comes a shunning of Butterfly by the community in which she was raised as intense and total as Tannhauser’s by the minnesingers of Wartburg, or Susannah’s by the elders of New Hope Valley.  Each of the women surrounds Cio Cio San and points and shakes her fan menacingly as the grey and red image glows savagely in the background.

(For a discussion of shunning of a person suspected of religious non-conformity, as it appears in Wagner’s “Tannhauser” and Floyd’s “Susannah”, see: Opera Pacific’s Brilliant “Susannah” – May 14, 2008.)

[Below: the women of her entourage turn against Cio Cio San (Patricia Racette); edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

The koken open and close screens and we are able to see the inner bedroom of the newlyweds.  Their bed is one of the old-fashioned style with its curved headboards and footboards consisting of metal posts. The rough end to the festivities are behind them and Jovanovich’s Pinkerton shows how sensitive an American officer can be in matters amorous.

This may be the only time in her life that she is able to be happy.

She has the comfort and genuine expression of love by Pinkerton, totally in the moment and without guile, in a love duet unexcelled in opera or perhaps in all of the performing arts.

And because in this idyllic time, neither she nor he has any doubt they are in love, nothing in her experience could prepare her for his later disaffection.

Puccini, of course, had intended originally that the opera be performed in two acts, with no break in the scene in which Butterfly, her little son and Suzuki spend the night awaiting the arrival of Pinkerton. Although the two act version was a performance rarity until recently, I believe strongly that the two act version works in the hands of a brilliant stage director and great set and lighting designers.

[Below: Suzuki (Zheng Cao), center, amidst the collection of American symbols, waits upon the reclining Cio Cio San (Patricia Racette); edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

Daniels, Yeargan and the lighting designer, Stephen Strawbridge (like Yeargan a member the Yale School of Drama faculty), have demonstrated that there is a far greater impact on the audience if it “experiences” the passage of this fateful night with the trio onstage, rather than leaving their seats for a half hour break to wander around the opera house before returning to a short third act.

Butterfly is abandoned and impoverished.  A Japanese boy arrives to take a small table that is being sold, and soon a treasured picture of Theodore Roosevelt disappears also.

Racette delivers an affecting “Un bel di” and skillfully demonstrates her character’s range of emotions as she angrily rejects the courtship of Prince Yamadori (Eugene Chan)  and excitedly interacts with Sharpless, ultimately sharing her secret – the child she has borne Pinkerton – with him.

[Below: the suicide of Cio Cio San (Patricia Racette); edited image, based on Terrence McCarthy photograph, courtesy of San Francisco Opera.]

In the two act version the beautiful flower duet, the gripping all-night vigil, and the fatal morning flow together, as emotions build one on the other.  When Pinkerton arrives he now a Captain in dress blues.  When Butterfly sees Kate Pinkerton (Katherine Tier), she comprehends all at once and knows her personal fate.

Once more the symbol of the dark gray temple on a field of red dominates the stage as Runnicles and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra intone the great chords that end the opera.

Puccini and the San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera has demonstrated an affinity for Puccini’s operas, from its very first season.  The opera company deserves to be considered to be a Center for Excellence in the production of these great works. Obviously, San Francisco’s “Butterfly” production is a particular treasure.

Of course, any opera production designed by David Hockney is, by definition, a work of art. San Francisco Opera’s Hockney collection includes a fine “Turandot”. The company has traditional productions of “Boheme” and “Tosca” as well.  Thus, all of Puccini’s four most popular operas can be mounted with sets the company owns.

San Francisco Opera, in launching its new Great Singers Fund, has described itself as a “place where exquisite singing leads our musical values and the greatest voices in the world want to perform”.  When one looks at the performance history of the Puccini operas, it is evident that many of the great recording stars of past and present times are represented.

I have argued on this website that today’s performances are often as good or better than the performances of three, four or five decades past.  Even so, when one looks at San Francisco Opera 30-50 years ago, one can see that this was a time in which many of the greatest voices of the era were singing Puccini in San Francisco.

My personal experience reflects this.  Victoria de los Angeles was my first Mimi, and I saw the Mimis of Renata Tebaldi, Teresa Stratas, Ileana Cotrubas and Mirella Freni.  Freni was also a wondrous Manon Lescaut. Leontyne Price was my first Tosca and Giorgetta in “Il Tabarro” teamed with my first Michele, Gabriel Bacquier. I also saw Price as Butterfly and Manon Lescaut.

Birgit Nilsson was my first Turandot; Marilyn Horne my first Musetta in “La Boheme”.  Among the Toscas I saw were Marie Collier, Montserrat Caballe, Dame Gwyneth Jones, Regine Crespin and Magda Olivero.  Renato Scotto was a memorable Butterfly.

Although Maria Callas is considered by some to have introduced modern acting technique to opera, there was a long tradition of singing actresses before her, and San Francisco saw Dorothy Kirsten, one of the greatest in this tradition in most of the roles for which she was famous. Kirsten was my first Butterfly, Manon Lescaut and Minnie in “La Fanciulla del West”.  I saw her perform Mimi in “Boheme” and Tosca as well.

The male Puccini heroes and villains also included some legendary voices.  Tito Gobbi was my first Jack Rance in “Fanciulla” and my first Gianni Schicchi.  Sandor Konya my first Dick Johnson in “Fanciulla” and Cavaradossi in “Tosca”.  Renato Cioni my first Rodolfo in “Boheme”.

I saw each of THE THREE TENORS perform Puccini.  Luciano Pavarotti sang Rodolfo, Cavaradossi and Calaf in “Turandot” (and I was there, as was Prince Charles of Great Britain, at the performance that was his role debut. Caballe was his Turandot).  I saw Jose Carreras as Rodolfo, and attended his only performance in San Francisco as Pinkerton, and saw Placido Domingo as Cavaradossi and Dick Johnson.

Sesto Bruscantini was a Marcello in “La Boheme”.  Ramon Vinay, Cornell MacNeil, Louis Quilico, Kostas Paskalis and  Giorgio Tozzi all performed Scarpia in “Tosca”.  I was at Samuel Ramey’s San Francisco Opera debut in a Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production of “La Boheme” with Giocomo Aragall as Rodolfo.  (I saw Aragall’s Cavaradossi and Luis Lima’s Rodolfo also.) Even artists with great Wagnerian voices would stop by to do Puccini.  I saw Jess Thomas as Cavaradossi and Janis Martin as Suzuki. Eva Marton was a stunning Turandot.

Most of the singers listed above performed the roles mentioned during the General Directorship of Kurt Herbert Adler, which spanned the period 1954-1981.  Although there were important, first rank singers in Puccini roles in later years, there has not been the association between the “big names” and the Puccini roles that one took for granted in the Adler years.

In fact, one came to believe that some managements did not really want to use the big names for Puccini.  His operas, even without the big name voices, more often than not sell out, so why engage a world famous star for such an opera? There has been an obvious sea change from that apparent policy since Gockley’s casting and repertory choices have taken hold, and a great contemporary Mimi, Angela Gheorghiu, is scheduled to sing the role in San Francisco this November.

A Ron Daniels “Fanciulla”?

We will learn more about the plans for a new “Fanciulla del West” before too long, and I expect to have quite a bit of say when we do.

By the way, I never have asked anyone in authority to confirm or deny this, but I suspect that a never announced “Fanciulla” production was actually well along in 2005, when it was apparently scrapped.  I believe this was the case, because in 2005 Nicola Luisotti’s website announced he was conducting a 2005 “Fanciulla” in San Francisco and Peter Strummer’s website announced he was singing Jack Rance in San Francisco in 2005.

Luisotti did arrive, but conducted the much-despised new production of Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino” (his conducting the bright spot in an otherwise mostly dismal experience).  Strummer, whom the San Francisco Opera has engaged on several occasions for important character roles, seems unlikely to me to have been added to the Fall 2007 roster only to play a relatively insignificant role in “Forza”. But, curiously, there he was, appearing as the Alcalde in the Hornachuelos scene, a role several of the Adler Fellows and more than one member of the chorus could have performed.

And who was the stage director of the “Forza”? – Ron Daniels. Since Daniels has shown great ability with staging “Butterfly” it would have seemed entirely appropriate for him to be asked to stage “Fanciulla” as well.  However, the “Forza” team also included a “concept” producer and costume designer with impeccable Eurotrash credentials. With General Director Pamela Rosenberg still in charge, I can envision some differences in artistic opinion as to how a “Fanciulla” production, if indeed there was such an enterprise originally planned, should look and feel.

Sooner or later, we will learn whether the references to a 2005 San Francisco “Fanciulla” on the websites of two separate artists were coincidental aberrations, or that indeed a project was in the works that ended up being scrapped.  If so, perhaps those involved who really love that opera (and that seems to include Luisotti) may well have wished to launch it at a more propitious time.

For the previous articles in this series, see: The Remaking of San Francisco Opera, Part I: Glass’ “Appomattox” – October 14, 2007

The Remaking of San Francisco Opera Part II: Gheorghiu and “Rondine” – November 25, 2007