Review: Harold Prince’s Vintage “Butterfly” at San Francisco Opera, November 5, 2010

Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” is the 20th century’s most popular opera. San Francisco Opera, for the third time in in the past five calendar years has mounted it. Although the opera company itself owns a fine production, this season it chose to import the famous 1988 production of Chicago’s Lyric Opera, which was conceived by the eminent Broadway director, Harold Prince, with scenery created by Broadway set designer Clarke Dunham.

This is the second Prince conception seen at the San Francisco Opera. The Lyric Opera’s production of Puccini’s “Fanciulla del West”, with Placido Domingo and Carol Neblett, was a highlight of the 1979 San Francisco season.

[Below: Harold Prince; resized image, based on a photograph from ]

The San Francisco Opera and Chicago’s Lyric Opera have stages of similar size that complement each other’s productions, and have, over the years, sometimes cooperated on new productions and at other times have exchanged existing ones. However, this is the first time that the Prince “Butterfly” production has been shown at the War Memorial Opera House.

The Lyric’s unit set is inspired by Japanese classical theater, with scenery elements that incorporate the style of classical paintings and prints. A Japanese style house is mounted on a turntable that moves through a full circumference, showing the house from different angles at different times during the opera.

[Below: Cio Cio San’s house with veranda at the side; resized image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

A concept also borrowed from Japanese theater is that of the use of koken, characters dressed in black that perform  various functions moving scenes. Most notably, the koken lie on the stage floor next to the turntable on which the house rests, and stand up when the scene is about to change to move the turntable with ropes.

Jose Maria Condemi, a former Adler Fellow (the San Francisco Opera’s young artists’ program, which mostly trains opera singers, but was expanded to incorporate Condemi as stage manager in residence) was assigned the task of realizing the 22 year old production for San Francisco’s stage.

This included the complexity of determining how his singers would move through scenes whose perspectives would shift as the turntable moved, and working with casts in which the Cio Cio San and Sharpless had different artists scheduled to take over for the 7th and the 10th performances respectively of a 12 performance run.

[Below: Pinkerton (Stefano Secco, left) is shown the house by the marriage broker, Goro (Thomas Glenn); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Stefano Secco was the Pinkerton throughout the run. He had made his San Francisco Opera stage debut in June in the title role of Gounod’s “Faust”. At that time, I felt Secco was upstaged by brilliant performances by his co-stars Patricia Racette as Marguerite and John Relyea as Mephistopheles.

Secco made a good impression as Pinkerton, his lyric voice sounding secure in a familiar Italian role. He seemed more at ease acting in this production of “Butterfly” from Chicago than in the “Faust” from that same company earlier this year.

This was the first performance this season for Daniela Dessi, whom I had seen in San Francisco as Donna Elvira in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” a decade and a half ago, her only previous appearances here. She proved to be in the tradition of the Italian spinto sopranos with the skills to project piano and piannissimo sounds in a spacious interior like San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House.

[Below: Cio Cio San (Daniela Dessi) sits with her relatives in preparation for the marriage ceremony; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The Suzuki, Louisiana mezzo-soprano Daveda Karanas, is another former Adler Fellow. This was her most important role to date on the San Francisco stage. She demonstrated that she is ready for even larger assignments with a passionate, powerful performance in the opera’s final act.

The Sharpless was Hawai’ian baritone Quinn Kelsey who had been impressive previously as the Count di Luna in Verdi’s “Il Trovatore” (see Verdi’s New Champion: Nicola Luisotti’s Transformative “Trovatore” – San Francisco Opera, October 4, 2009). The Goro was Thomas Glenn and Bonze was Christian Van Horn.

[Below: Quinn Kelsey as the Consul Sharpless; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Of the comprimario roles the most impressive was that of Austin Kness as Prince Yamadori. Bizarrely and enchantingly costumed (Florence Klotz is listed as costume designer) in one of the only roles that can be played light-heartedly, this was the most vivid impression made by Kness to date. Another Adler Fellow, Sara Gartland, portrayed Kate Pinkerton with distinction.

However, the two leads, Dessi and Secco, who sang in an authentic Italian style, deserved top honors for this performance.

[Below: Cio Cio San (Daniela Dessi) and Pinkerton (Stefano Secco) prepare for their wedding night; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

This evening was the debut of Bulgarian Conductor Julian Kovatchev. As always, the San Francisco Opera Orchestra demonstrated what Puccini’s orchestration should sound like.

“Madama Butterfly” has proved to be a touchstone for displaying the skills of production designers and stage directors. Even with very specific plot situations and the detailed stage directions of the libretto, there seem limitless ways of presenting this always intriguing work.

For example, this summer’s Santa Fe Opera Festival had another “Butterfly” on a turntable (see Kaduce’s Incandescent Cio Cio San, Jovanovich’s Injudicious Pinkerton, Emblazon Blakeley’s “Butterfly” – Santa Fe Opera, July 16, 2010), but with a quite different viewpoint on the kind of neighborhood in which Cio Cio San’s house would be located.

A quite different approach is that of Moffatt Oxenbould who also began with an homage to classical Japanese theater (see Australia Opera’s “Butterfly” Charms Pittsburgh – October 19, 2007.) A very stylized approach is Los Angeles Opera’s Robert Wilson production (see Liping Zhang Resplendent in Robert Wilson’s L. A. “Butterfly” – October 1, 2008.)

For those who have not had an opportunity to see the Lyric Opera’s production, its run in San Francisco continues through the 27th of November, 2010.