Earlier this month I reviewed the opening performance of San Francisco Opera’s mounting of Amon Miyamoto’s production of a Puccini masterpiece [Review: Karah Son, Michael Fabiano Lead Brilliant Cast in Amon Miyamoto’s Fascinating Production of “Madama Butterfly” – San Francisco Opera, June 3, 2023]
Fifteen days later, I attended a second performance with the identical cast. The second review gives me the opportunity to expand my comments on principal members of the cast, the production and the opera itself.
The musical performance
As confirmed in my earlier review, strong vocal performances were elicited from all members of the cast and the chorus, matched by the brilliant San Francisco Opera Orchestra under the baton of Maestra Eun Sun Kim.
The role of Cio-Cio San, one of the longest female roles in all of Italian opera, dominates the performance. What in San Francisco Opera’s performance is the second (and final) act, the artist portraying her (here, Karah Son) is rarely offstage. It requires a voice of spinto power and stamina, which Son displayed throughout the performance.
[Below: Karah Son as Cio-Cio San; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The most inspired music of the opera is the intensely lyrical love music between Cio-Cio San and her newly-wed husband, Lieutenant Pinkerton, in the series of duets that accompany the preparations for their wedding night. Son’s voice blended beautifully with that of tenor Michael Fabiano, her Pinkerton.
Fabiano possesses the vocal beauty, caressed by the War Memorial Opera House’s responsive acoustics, that make him an incomparable Puccini tenor. He has now performed all three of Puccini’s leading tenor roles for San Francisco Opera [see Review: Michael Fabiano, Alexia Voulgaridou are Vocally Splendid in John Caird’s Cleverly Conceived “La Boheme” – San Francisco Opera, November 14, 2014 and Review: Ailyn Pérez , Michael Fabiano, Alfred Walker, Soloman Howard Excel in a Memorable “Tosca” (with a Post-Finale Surprise) – San Francisco Opera, September 5, 2021
[Below: Michael Fabiano as Lieutenant Pinkerton; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of thee San Francisco Opera.] .
Puccini has invested “Madama Butterfly”‘s Pinkerton, like “Boheme”‘s Rodolfo and “Tosca”‘s Mario Cavaradossi with wonderful melodies crafted to display each character’s range of emotions. (I hope someday to see Fabiano perform the Puccini tenor roles of Chevalier Des Grieux in “Manon Lescaut” and Dick Johnson in “Girl of the Golden West”) Significantly, Fabiano’s next engagement after San Francisco’s “Madama Butterfly” was as Calaf in Puccini’s “Turandot” in Madrid.
Pinkerton’s wealth of melodies is not confined only to his duets with Cio-Cio San and two solo arias. Pinkerton also performs melodic duets with the American Consul Sharpless, in this performance sung by baritone Lucas Meachem. Fabiano’s and Meachem’s scenes together were praiseworthy, both of them at the prime of their careers, complementing eaxh other in vocally expressive artistry.
[Below: Lucas Meachem as Consul Sharpless; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Amon Miyamoto’s production: rehabiltating Lieutenant Pinkerton
San Francisco Opera’s co-production with three opera companies based in Tokyo, Dresden and Copenhagen. is an ambitious project. It contains within it a sequel to Puccini’s opera. Pantomime scenes take place that show an aged B. F. Pinkerton on his deathbed (performed by actor Evan Miles O’Hare) in the company of his “American wife” Kate Pinkerton and Suzuki (the latter parts respectively played in both the pantomime and opera by Mikayla Sager and Hyona Kim).
Obviously, long ago Kate Pinkerton imposed (or agreed to) withholding information from Cio-Cio San’s and B. F. Pinkerton’s son Trouble about the boy’s origins or her husband’s Japanese marriage. On his deathbed a guilty B.F. Pinkerton has prepared a letter to a shocked Trouble explaining the sequence of events that led to his birth and his journey as an infant child to the United States.
With the information provided by his father, the Adult Trouble (played by John Charles Quimpo) wanders through alll the scenes of the opera, learning the details of all that happened.
At various points of the opera, we have hints of Pinkerton owning up to some of the responsibilities he took on in his first marriage, especially his angry reaction to the condemnation of the Bonze for Cio-Cio San’s renunciation of her religion and her subsequent shunning by her family and community. After leaving Japan, Pinkerton arranged through Consul Sharpless to continue payments for the house’s rent and door locks. When he discovered he had a son, he committed to raising the boy.
The total effect of the sequel events is to heighten the sense of Lieutenant Pinkerton’s remorse, which in the opera is the subject of Pinkerton’s final aria Addio fiorito asil.
[Below: the Adult Trouble (John Charles Quimpo, left) observes his father B. F. Pinkerton (Michael Fabiano, right) as a sailor from the USS Abraham Lincoln looks on; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Unlike the marriage broker Goro, Pinkerton never indicates that he thinks of Cio-Cio San as a commodity, even though he accepts the idea of his Japanese “marriage” as an arrangement for a longer term sexual affair.
One of the truly excellent Pinkertons of recent time, tenor Brandon Jovanovich, said of his character that he doesn’t regard PInkerton as evil, but rather as ignorant, thereby willing to accept the assurances of the self-serving Goro that his “marriage” was just the way these things were done in turn of the 20th century Japan.
[Below: Goro (Julius Ahn) holds a brochure of women whom he will be able eto provide to men for a price; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Miyamoto’s presentation of the opera
Miyamoto’s production, utilizing Slovakian designer Boris Kudlicka’s innovative set design, German designer Fabio Antoci’s lighting, and Polish designer Bartek Macias’ projections, organizes the scenes of the opera in unique ways. The first act has large scenes where Cio-Cio San’s friends and relatives and Japanese functionaries are present on the full stage. These large scenes alternate with intimate scenes in which only a portion of the stage is visible, so as to focus on Pinkerton, Cio-Cio San and their household.
[Below: the scene of the wedding in the first act of “Madama Buterfly” at which the bride’s relatives and government officials are present; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The intimate scenes often take place in a structure that sometimes represents a house or rooms within the house and sometimes just a place where the story’s principals interact with each other.
[Below: Cio-Cio San (Karah Son) stands at the entrance to the house; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Instead of functioning as a specific piece of an entire scene’s set design, black curtains and other devices will hide it and the structure will reappear as a different shape seen from another angle. Miyamoto’s results are fascinating and highlight the complexity and cinematic qualities of the stage action that Puccini incorporates into his musical score.
My favorite use of the structure is the framing of an ominous red sky that is a prelude to Cio-Cio San’s chosen fate.
[Below: Cio-Cio San (Karah Son) stands in front of the structure, which now frames a red sky; edited image, based on a Cory Weaer photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Final Thoughts: I feel fortunate to have twice experienced San Francisco Opera’s mounting of Amon Miyamoto’s production with its excellent cast, and its innovative set design, lighting and projections. I regard the production as one of the best presentations of Puccini’s opera that I have seen over the many years of live performances I have attended of this iconic opera.