Review: Karah Son, Michael Fabiano Lead Brilliant Cast in Amon Miyamoto’s Fascinating Production of “Madama Butterfly” – San Francisco Opera, June 3, 2023

San Francisco Opera, as part of its centennial season, unveiled a new production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”, a co-production with the Tokyo Nikikai Opera, the Semperoper Dresden and the Royal Danish Opera.

Karah Son’s Cio-Cio San

Among the many admirable attributes of the production was the strong performance of South Korean soprano Karah Son, singing the title role, in her San Francisco Opera debut. Her performance was an ardent interpretation.

[Below: Karah Son as Cio-Cio San; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Son’s presentation of Cio-Cio San’s great aria Un bel di was beautifully sung, vocally expressive with a hint of sweetly controlled vibrato. Impressively, the aria was fully integrated into the opera’s dramatic flow, rather than being presented as an action-stopping star turn.

Michael Fabiano’s Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton

New Jersey tenor Michael Fabiano, assaying his seventh operatic role for the San Francisco Opera in the twelve years since his company debut, was dramatically and vocally persuasive as Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton. Fabiano’s voice retains its lyric flexibility and expressiveness for the love music with the requisite spinto when desirable. His vocal power was evident in his presentation of Pinkerton’s famous arias, the first act Davunque al mondo lo Yankee vagabondo and last act Addio fiorito asil.

[Below: Michael Fabiano as Pinkerton; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

As melodious as Cio-Cio San’s and Pinkerton’s individual arias are, in “Madama Butterfly” it is the extended series of duets between the two that closes Act I that is the opera’s high point.

[Below: Lieutenant Pinkerton (Michael Fabiano) consoles a distraught Cio-Cio San (Karah Son); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Here the two artists’ voices blended beautifully, evoking the timeless appeal of Puccini’s incomparable love-music. [See Rising Stars: An Interview with Michael Fabiano.]

Hyona Kim’s Suzuki

South Korean mezzo-soprano Hyona Kim was an authoritative Suzuki, providing the warm mezzo and comforting presence of Cio-Cio San’s constant companion. In Miyamoto’s production, she participates in the pantomimes that reveal that she has joined the Pinkertons in America as governess for the child.

[Below: Hyona Kim as Suzuki; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Kim has become a familiar and respected presence at San Francisco Opera, appearing as Lady Wang in both the world premiere 2017 season and 2022 season revival of Bright Sheng’s and David Henry Huang’s opera “The Dream of the Red Chamber”. [See World Premiere Review: “The Dream of the Red Chamber” Transforms into a Fascinating Opera – San Francisco Opera, September 10, 2016 and Review: A Pleasing Revival of “Dream of the Red Chamber” at San Francisco Opera, June 14, 2022.]

Lucas Meachem’s Sharpless

North Carolina baritone Lucas Meachem portrayed the American consul Sharpless. Meachem’s mellifluous baritone was enlisted in yet another example of Puccini’s melodic genius, the lyrical opening bars of his duet with Pinkerton Ier l’altro, il Consolato sen’ venne a visitar. Meachem and Fabiano together make glorious music.

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

Meachem’s early career included participation in San Francisco Opera’s Merola Young Artist’s program and Adler Fellowships. In the succeeding years, he has established an international reputation in both dramatic and comic roles, including Don Giovanni [Review: Meachem, Vinco, Lead Cast of Imaginatively Staged “Don Giovanni” – San Francisco Opera, October 23, 2011] Athanaël [Review: Minnesota Opera’s Splendidly Exotic, Erotic “Thaïs” – May 12, 2018] and Eugene Onegin [Review: Santa Fe Opera’s “Eugene Onegin”, Musically Appealing, Visually Striking – July 24, 2021]. See also: “Hey, Figaro!”: A Conversation with Baritone Lucas Meachem.

Julius Ahn’s Goro, Kidon Choi’s Prince Yamadori and Jongwon Han’s Bonze

In addition to Karah Son and Hyona Kim, South Korean artists participating in the performance were tenor Julius Ahn portraying the matchmaker Goro, baritone Kidon Choi as Prince Yamadori, bass-baritone Jongwon Han as the Bonze, and soprano Crystal Kim as Cio-Cio San’s cousin.

[Below: Goro (Julius Ahn, center) attempts to interest Cio-Cio San (Karah Son, right) in the marriage proposal of the Prince Yamadori (Kidon Choi, left); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Puccini’s operas include juicy assignments for artists in such “character roles” as Goro and Yamadori, both nicely performed by Ahn and Choi.

Ahn has become a familiar presence in recent seasons, performing Goro in the two previous San Francisco Opera seasons in which “Butterfly” was performed [Review: A Transcendent “Madama Butterfly”, San Francisco Opera, November 6, 2016] as well as mastering the complex choreographed movements of Pang and his cohorts Ping and Pong [Review: San Francisco Opera’s “Turandot” – Sonic Splendor, Visual Delight – September 8, 2017].

Jongwon Han was memorable in the brief but challenging role of the Bonze, whose condemnation of Cio-Cio San terrifies her relatives and other wedding guests.

[Below: the Bonze (Jongwon Han, left) disrupts a wedding of which he disapproves; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

John Charles Quimpo’s Adult Trouble, Evan Miles O’Hare’s Elder Pinkerton and Viva Young Maguire’s Child Trouble

Although no alteration is made in the opera’s story line, the production is nontraditonal in that it begins (and ends) with pantomime scenes that take place at Pinkerton’s deathbed. 

[Below: The dying Lieutenant Pinkerton (Evan Miles O’Hare, on bed) is visited by his son, the Young Adult Trouble (John Charles Quimpo) who is to learn the history of the marriage between his father and mother; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

The character of the son of Pinkerton and Cio-CIo San (Butterfly), appears in the pantomime as a young adult. He then is present as an observer in almost every scene, except for a scene leading to Butterfly’s death. In that scene, Young Adult Trouble, instead of just observing, interacts with Child Trouble.

Child Trouble is played by the amazing Viva Young Maguire. Her portrayal of the young boy demonstrates a sharp memory for her part’s complicated stage action, superb timing in interacting with the opera principal singers and a dramatic flair that I have never seen in an operatic child actor before this performance.

[Photo: Trouble (Viva Young Maguire, left) sits with his mother Cio-Cio San (Karah Son); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]

Mikayla Sager’s Kate Pinkerton and Other Cast Members

The role of Canadian soprano Mikayla Sager, the Kate Pinkerton, is expanded by her participation in the beginning pantomime. Japanese dancer Chimharu Shebata is a Shadow Dancer.

San Francisco Opera chorus members Andrew Thomas Pardini is the Imperial Commissioner, Jere Torkelsen is the Official Registrar., Whitney Steele is an Aunt.

Maestra Eun Sun Kim and the San Francisco Opera and Chorus

San Francisco Opera Music Director, South Korean Maestra Eun Sun Kim, presided over a brilliant performance by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and of the San Francisco Opera Chorus, under the leadership of Pennsylvania Chorus Director John Keene.

Director Arnon Miyamoto Production

In several of my past performance reviews, I have referred to the San Francisco Opera’s War Memorial Opera House as the “House of Puccini”. The composer’s soaring melodies underscored by his brilliant orchestration (that so often reveals the influence of Richard Wagner) resound beautifully in this opera house. As part of its centennial season the company revealed the three most performed operas in the company’s first century, which, unsurprisingly are, in order, Puccini’s “La Boheme”, “Madama Butterfly” and “Tosca”.

I have been fortunate to have seen each of the company’s “Butterfly” productions of the past six decades, and found this Miyamoto production to be as persuasive as it is extraordinary.

A co-production of four opera companies, San Francisco Opera is the third stop after 2019 performances at Tokyo’s Nikikai Opera and 2022 performances at the Semperoper Dresden (Germany). (The fourth co-sponsor of the production is the Royal Danish Opera.)

Miyamoto’s production moves beyond what can be considered as the central theme of Puccini’s work – the consequences of Pinkerton’s selfish and culturally clueless actions on Cio-Cio San, who believed in a “marriage” that Pinkerton did not regard as serious. This production considers those consequences over the following three decades. Here, Kate Pinkerton has taken responsibility for negotiating the future of the child produced by that fateful marriage to allow him to grow up in a safe and protected environment.

Other members of the production team

Japanese director Miroku Shimada was Associate Director. Slovakian designer Boris Kudlicka created the sets, Japanese designers Kenzo Takada and Sonoko Takeda the costumes, German designer Fabio Antoci the lighting, and Polish designer Bartek Macias the projections. The choreographer was Ireland’s Colm Seery.

Recommendation: I wholeheartedly recommend the production and cast to both the veteran opera-goer and to persons new to opera.