Review: Racette, Ventre Impress in Zambello-Inspired “Butterfly” at San Diego Opera- May 20, 2009

Over the past three years, I have reviewed productions of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” – San Francisco Opera’s reconceptualization of Ron Daniels/Michael Yeargan’s production (2006 and 2007), Moffat Oxenbould’s Opera Australia production presented by the Pittsburgh Opera (2007) and the revival of Robert Wilson’s production (based on his original work at Opera National de Paris) for Los Angeles Opera (2008).

Each of these productions may be considered to be non-traditional. The Wilson “Butterfly” immerses itself in the stylized movments and images of classical Japanese theater. (See: Liping Zhang Resplendent in Robert Wilson’s L. A. “Butterfly” – October 1, 2008.) Oxenbould creates a strikingly beautiful Japan, but, from his Southern hemisphere perspective, distant from Europe and North America and not particularly close to the Far East, gives thought to the cross-cultural issues raised by an Italian composer, to whom American culture was only somewhat less foreign than that of Japan. (See: Australia Opera’s “Butterfly” Charms Pittsburgh – October 19, 2007.)

The Ron Daniels/Michael Yeargan production, that premiered originally in 1997 for San Francisco Opera, but was reconceptualized there in 2006, merges the Japanese and American features of the score in imaginative ways, at times observing the stage directions of Puccini and his librettists, at other times incorporating elements of the surreal into the staging.

(See Puccini, Daniels, Yeargan and Racette Team for Masterful S. F. Butterfly – June 18, 2006  and:

 The Remaking of San Francisco Opera Part III “Madama Butterfly” – December 8, 2007.)

In 1998, stage director Francesca Zambello created a new production of “Butterfly” for a consortium of opera companies – Dallas Opera, Grand Theatre de Geneve, Houston Grand Opera and San Diego Opera. Garnett Bruce was her assistant/associate stage director for “Butterfly”, as he is for several of her other productions. (For the revival of the production in San Diego, Bruce assumed the principal stage director duties.)

The Zambello concept, whether directed by her personally, or with Bruce as stage director, in addition to the 1998 performances in the cities of the production’s co-sponsors, has also been seen in Cincinnati (2001), at Pittsburgh Opera (2002), and at Opera Pacific in California’s Orange County (2003).

Although the Houston Grand opera revived it in 2004, it is San Diego where the Zambello production has proved to be especially popular, its opera company having mounted the production in three separate seasons (previously 1998 and 2003). Although well-received in San Diego each time it was performed, it is the 2009 production, with its cast of Patricia Racette (Butterfly), Carlo Ventre (Pinkerton) and Malcolm MacKenzie (Sharpless) that has proved to be especially endearing in this impressive production.

How Zambello Embellished Butterfly

David Belasco’s stage play on which the opera is based contains a scene in the American consul’s office, which was not incorporated into the opera. What Zambello has done is to rethink the opera from the American perspective – in fact, the perspective of American diplomatic officialdom – and to place most of the action of the opera in the American consulate. This happens for the first half of the first act, and for the first part of the combined second/third act.

Many readers of this website who have not seen the production may pre-judge this approach to staging “Butterfly” as peculiar and unworthy of the opera. I have already taken positions supporting each of the non-traditional productions referenced above, and I will expand my comments on this later in this review. However, I believe that even some of the skeptics about departing from Puccini’s stated intentions will concede that shifting the action to the consulate works quite well, and adds insights into the underlying strength of this masterpiece.

The front scrim briefly shows a landscape in the classical Japanese style, but it fades into a large garrison-size American flag on the consulate wall. The sets are by Michael Yeargan, and, reminding us of the printed Latin text that adorns the walls in the Doge’s palace in his often revised sets for Covent Garden’s production of Verdi’s “Simon Boccanegra”, the consulate walls are emblazoned with the “pledge of allegiance” to that flag that ironically ends with the phrase “Justice for All”.

Thus, the consulate is a beehive of activity in which the marriage broker Goro is showing Pinkerton a model of the house he will share with Butterfly. Sharpless is deskbound with filing cabinets behind him. He keeps alcoholic beverages on his desk, so that when Pinkerton offers the liquor-laced Milk punch, o Wisky? for their toast, he is merely offering to pour from Sharpless’ own cache.

In these surroundings, Sharpless’ words of warning Ier l’altro Consolato sen’venne avisitar! (one of Puccini’s great melodies that makes this role so attractive to baritones) takes on, I believe, an even greater significance than when sung in the Japanese house that a traditional production expects.

[Below: Sharpless (Malcolm MacKenzie) expresses his reservations about the nonchalance that Pinkerton (Carlo Ventre) is taking towards his arranged marriage; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of San Diego Opera.]

“We are not in a French colonial possession, where the authorities wink at the French military officers ‘going native’ with the indigenous women”, I can imagine Sharpless thinking (See the review Sarah Coburn’s Ravishing Tulsa Opera Lakme – February 29, 2008 for further exposition of the differences between French-speaking and English-speaking officialdom on its military officers “going native”.)

“You are American and do not comprehend this culture”, Sharpless seems to be saying.  “I do not have the authority to stop what you are doing, but I counsel you that you a  making a grave mistake, that you and I will both regret.”

Not every phrase of the opera’s Italian libretto is translated in the supertitles (since Sharpless is already in his office, his complaints about walking up the hill to the house Goro has sold Pinkerton, are ignored.) Yet, quite impressively, the sequence of events that follows fits so well at the Consulate as to dispel one’s skepticism about the change of point of view.

Goro, nicely played by Joseph Hu, has arranged for Suzuki (another impressive role for Suzanna Guzman) and the  other servants, the Imperial commissioner and other Japanese functionaries to come with him to Sharpless’ office. The marriage ceremony has only a smattering of Cio Cio San’s women relatives. Most of the assembled wedding party are the five or so fellow Naval officers, all in dress whites, and numerous wives and the women of the consulate’s secretarial staff, decked in Victorian dress. 

Of course, Puccini intended the women’s chorus to be on Butterfly’s side of the aisle, rather than Pinkerton’s.  A historian knowledgeable in the sociology of the military outposts of the period might raise objections about so many of the officer’s wives attending such a ceremony at all.  However, Puccini’s chorus contains mostly women (with only tenor voices represented among the men – there are no baritone or bass chorus parts in “Butterfly”). Production designers can costume the choristers as they see fit, but they can’t change the distribution of the chorus voices.

The words written for the chorus women are mostly about the sea, and flowers, and how handsome Pinkerton is (the tenors disagreeing with them on that matter.) These sentiments can be expressed by women of the Occident as well as the Orient. Even accounting for the license taken here, it works surprisingly well having the American women heralding the Entrance of Butterfly, rather than bringing a dozen or so Nagasaki women into the consulate solely for that purpose.

[Goro (Joseph Hu) awaits the entrance of Butterfly, joined by a group of officer’s wives and consulate secretaries; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Racette’s Butterfly appears in a predominantly red kimono. She is accompanied by a few Japanese women who add their voices to the various choruses.

Racette is an American soprano who increasingly is dominating the Puccini repertory, and Butterfly is her most famous role. She added the role of Magda in Puccini’s “La Rondine” for Los Angeles Opera in June 2008 (Marta Domingo’s Reconceptualization of “Rondine” Returns to L. A. – June 7, 2008), is scheduled to sing each of the principal soprano roles in the three operas of Puccini’s “Il Trittico” (Lauretta in “Gianni Schicchi”, Giorgetta in “Il Tabarro” and the title role of “Suor Angelica”) this September at San Francisco Opera and later in the Fall at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, and will sing the title role of “Tosca” at Houston Grand Opera in January-February, 2010.

Racette is a notoriously under-recorded artist, even though she is now in peak form.  Even though she has recorded contemporary operas by Floyd and Picker, one will not find a studio recording of her performing a major role in a standard opera.

This website frequently notes the great fortune that artists had (particularly those well connected with recording industry executives) that were performing at the advent of the LP record and stereophonic sound. There exist high quality studio recordings of the great roles of 1950-1980 era artists (and some roles they never sang in performance) when no such archive is likely to exist for many of the great singers of this millenium.

[Below: The entrance of Butterfly (Patricia Racette) for her wedding at the American consulate in Nagasaki; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph for the San Diego Opera.]

Racette exemplifies the soprano voice with the tightly controlled vibrato that many opera aficionados particularly admire. One  remembers the late Terry McEwen’s affection for this “healthy vibrato” quality in the voice of Spanish soprano Pilar Lorengar. When McEwen was an executive at Decca Records he promoted Lorengar’s casting in several important full length operas, and when he assumed the general management of the San Francisco Opera in 1982, he engaged Lorengar for all but one season of the six seasons he was at the opera company’s helm.

As a point of interest, there was one Sunday – September 17, 1989 – in which Lorengar sang the role of Alice in Verdi’s “Falstaff” for a matinee performance (with Thomas Stewart as Falstaff) and Racette sang Alice that evening (with Timothy Noble as Falstaff). McEwen, who had by then given over the San Francisco Opera reins to Lotfi Mansouri, would have been ecstatic.

I admire Lorengar’s artistry, which shines in the Decca recordings. But I saw her in 15 different roles in ten different seasons at San Francisco Opera, including Butterfly with Sandor Konya’s Pinkerton, and felt her voice was generally too small for San Francisco’s 3200 seat War Memorial Opera House with its open orchestra pit. On the other hand, Racette possesses a large spinto voice that is especially felicitous for the large opera houses and auditoriums where opera in the United States typically is presented.

If one checks out or Apple’s i-tunes, Lorengar is available in full length studio recordings of several standard works, and has no fewer than 118 i-tune selections from nine albums available for downloading. Racette has only Viclinda’s short aria, Tutta tremante ancor, from Verdi’s “I Lombardi” available from i-tunes  (which I do recommend to Racette fans who do not want to invest in the entire album), and three other selections from that recording in which she only utters a word or two in ensemble passages.

The Incorporation of the Surreal into “Butterfly”

One of the features of modern operatic productions is the frequent introduction of surreal elements into operas in which surreality was not intended. In the hands of an insightful concept director, determined to illuminate (rather than mock) the storyline, the surreality is often an enhancement. “Butterfly” has proven to be one in which one can jump into the surreal in such a way as to enhance the drama, rather than destroy the mood.

The entrance of the Bonze, who is such a vivid metaphor for the ancient culture of Japan and its hold on Butterfly, seems an irresistible point for such a leap to the surreal to take place. As soon as the Bonze’s voice is heard, the consulate back wall with its American flag dissolves and a giant statue of the Buddha with the Bonze in front, condemns Butterfly’s renunciation of her Japanese religion.

[Below: Cio Cio San (Patricia Racette) is unnerved by the appearance of the Bonze (Scott Sikon, in yellow robes beneath the statue of the Buddha); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of San Diego Opera.]

Then, with the signature red background that we associate with both the Zambello/Yeargan and Daniels/Yeargan productions dominates the stage, as Butterfly’s relatives denounce her for her attempt to repudiate her culture.

[Below: Butterfly (Patricia Racette) is denounced and shunned by those present who hold to Japanese tradition and culture; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

This leads Carlo Ventre’s Pinkerton to spring into action. He dismisses his new wife’s detractors and pushes the Buddha offstage. Japanese screens descend from above and husband and wife don the garments for their wedding night.

Ventre has announced that the role of Pinkerton is one that he has more less decided to abandon, since, among other reasons, it is not a character he likes nor identifies with, and that only his special affection for San Diego and San Diego Opera’s General Director Ian Campbell led him to agree to sing it yet another time.

Ventre has already demonstrated that he is capable of assuming the major dramatic Verdi roles, such as Gabriele Adorno in “Simon  Boccanegra” (in which I heard him in San Francisco and which he performed also in San Diego) and Rhadames in “Aida” (For my review of him in the latter, see: Team Verdi: San Diego Opera’s Praiseworthy “Aida” – April 23, 2008. For a review of another recent Ventre performance, see:  Guang Yang a Stellar Santuzza in Lyric Opera’s “Cavalleria” – Chicago, February 25, 2009.) There are dozens of roles that are of a heavier vocal weight than that of Pinkerton, in which Ventre’s powerful, yet beautiful, voice is needed.

Thus, it is quite possible that performance I attended will be his last ever in the role. But, whether or not this is the end of his career as an American naval lieutenant, what a memorable performance he gave – his rich, creamy voice blending with Racette’s in a magical performance of the opera’s extended love duet that ends the first act.

[Below: Pinkerton (Carlo Ventre) consoles Cio Cio San (Patricia Racette); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

The second act also begins in the consulate. Here, all of the action between Suzuki and Goro, Sharpless, Butterfly and Prince Yamadori, seems quite natural and logical occurring on what is, formally, “American turf”. 

Obviously, the Prince and Goro have become engaged in a bargain for which they seek the support of American authorities, to split Butterfly from her bond with Pinkerton. And it is in the consulate that her refusal to renounce her bond with Pinkerton, or even to accept the possibility that he will not return, is transformed into something more than the problems of a man who did not take a marriage in a foreign country seriously.

[Below: Cio Cio San (Patricia Racette) makes clear to Sharpless (Malcolm MacKenzie) that she will have none of the entreaties of Prince Yamadori (Jason Detwiler); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

To introduce Sharpless to Trouble at the embassy seems particularly ominous. An American officer with the Japanese wife and son, who entered into the marriage with the knowledge and implied consent of the consul, and who has subsequently entered into an American marriage, is not just a love affair that ended badly. It is a legal and diplomatic disaster.

[Below: Sharpless (Malcolm MacKenzie) is shocked at the sight of Trouble, the son of Cio Cio San (Patricia Racette) and, unknown to him, Pinkerton; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera. ]

Then, with Goro falsely accusing Butterfly, the consulate again disappears and we return to the surreal. In the harbor, one sees the gray silhouettes of a convoy of American naval vessels. 

[Below: the spectre of the battleships returning dominates the background; edited image, from a Ken Howard photograph from a previous production.]

Then the stage is bare, with Suzuki, Trouble and Cio Cio San strewing the stage with ever larger baskets of confetti. The trio carry two lanterns and go to the back of the stage for their all night vigil.

Then, in an imaginative sequence, there is a pantomime of Pinkerton (now in dress blues) and Kate meeting and soon he, kneeling, proposing marriage. They waltz and stand silhouetted in the moonlight. As the morning dawns, we hear the sailor calls in Nagasaki. We will be reminded of these calls of men at work along a waterfront when we hear the sounds of Paris along the Seine River in Puccini’s “Tabarro”.

There is a bustle of activity. Young Nagasaki kids and their elders wave to the ship. Sailors in dress blues and the blue Navy flat hats descend a ship’s gangplank at stage right. Pinkerton and Kate come down the gangplank as well.

Sharpless arrives at Butterfly’s house with Pinkerton and Kate, who has brought a model ship for the boy, and seeks to enlist Suzuki in persuading Butterfly to give up the Boy. 

Pinkerton sings his song of remorse, drops his naval cap on the ground, and departs. When Butterfly enters she picks up the cap in anticipation of Pinkerton’s return to her, but drops it when she realizes that the foreign woman that she sees is his wife. Butterfly grasps all at once, and decides on the grisly scene that will accompany the transfer of the boy to Pinkerton.

Trouble runs in, puts on Pinkerton’s cap, and as an orange background darkens to blood red, he takes the model ship that Kate had brought him and goes in the direction that Pinkerton had left the stage. Then a giant blood red curtain descends, and Butterfly commits suicide. A grief-stricken Pinkerton crosses the curtain to caress her body, while the boy runs in and grabs Pinkerton from behind.

[Below: the death of Butterfly (Patricia Racette); edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

The Zambello/Bruce production demonstrates how kaleidoscopic this opera is.  Without doubt, the most popular opera of the 20th century, and a strong contender for consideration as the 20th century’s greatest operatic masterpiece, “Butterfly” continues to yield new facets as the great minds of stage direction and set design explore its features. 

Among the many deserving credit for a wonderful performance were Conductor Edoardo Mueller and Chorus Master Timothy Todd Simmons. Anita Yavich was the production’s costume designer and Alan Burrett the lighting designer.