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Passionless Butterfly Ends Season

San Francisco
War Memorial Opera House
01/09/1999 -  and 10, 12*, 13, 14, 15, 16 and 17 January, 1999
Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly
Sylvie Valayre (9, 12, 14, and 16 January), Isabelle Kabatu (10, 13, 15, and 17 January) (Madama Butterfly), Luis Lima (9, 12, 14, and 16 January) James Cornelison (10, 13, 15, and 17 January) (Lt. B.F. Pinkerton), Zheng Cao (9, 12, 14, and 16 January) Wendy White (10, 13, 15, and 17 January) (Suzuki), David Okerlund (9, 12, 14, and 16 January) (Sharpless), Dennis Petersen (9, 12, 14, and 16 January) Jon Kolbet (10, 13, 15, and 17 January) (Goro), Karen Fergurson (Kate Pinkerton), Philip Skinner (The Bonze), Alfredo Daza (9, 12, 14, and 16 January) Armando Gama (10, 13, 15, and 17 January) (Prince Yamadori), William Pickersgill (9, 12, 14, and 16 January) Frederick Matthews (10, 13, 15, and 17 January) (The Official Registrar), David Kekuewa (9, 12, 14, and 16 January) Jere Torkelsen (10, 13, 15, and 17 January) (The Imperial Commissioner), Valerie Zhao (9, 12, 14, and 16 January) Brian Pang (10, 13, 15, and 17 January) (Trouble as a child), Richard Paton (Trouble as an adult), Colby Roberts (a cook), Frederick Winthrop (a gardener)
Orchestra and Chorus of the San Francisco Opera, Emmanuel Vallaume (Conductor)
Ron Daniels (Stage Director)

Madama Butterfly can serve as the vehicle for a soprano with the vocal and dramatic rescues to bring to life one of Puccini’s most beloved tragic heroines. But so popular is the opera that even without an exemplary exponent in the title role, the crowds still turn out for this perennial favorite.

Closing out the San Francisco Opera’s fall/winter season with a double-cast run, the current Madama Butterfly lacks the charismatic central figure, at least in the opening night cast, but the audience turns our and responds with enthusiasm. This was a carefully sung, neatly staged production that got all the basics right but somehow failed to catch fire and ignite the emotional aspect of the opera, a serious misstep for this opera.

In the title role, Sylvie Valayre displayed a soprano with a big, bright top capable of riding the orchestra most of the time. In softer passages is it less effective, so moments such as her entrance failed to make an impact. The bottom register is weak and the middle, where so much of the role lies, lacks the body to convey the emotional substance. As an actress, Valayre clearly had very specific ideas about Cio-Cio-San and emphasized a youthful optimism. This made for a charming first appearance, but as the tragedy unfolds, instead of revealing the depths of her anguish, this Butterfly seemed to become once again a chrysalis and the inner torment remained untouched.

Luis Lima first appeared at the San Francisco Opera in 1980, in fresh youthful voice. The vocal bloom is no longer there and Lima has sung many a heavier role in the intervening years which have taken their toll on what was a pleasing lyric tenor. Now there is a dryness in tone and strain in the upper register. But Lima has also developed a very easy, natural almost casual presence on stage which suits the role of Pinkerton perfectly. His Pinkerton was a charming cad in the first act and his remorse heartfelt and convincing in the last.

Another heartfelt and convincing performance came from Zheng Cao as Suzuki. Her animated, mischievous first appearance gave way to a woman fully aware of her mistress’s situation and her own inability to avert the disaster. Cao’s neatly delineated performance succeeded vocally as well with an assured technique and a full, steady tone throughout the registers.

David Okerlund’s physical presence as Sharpless could hardly have been better. Tall and burly, his build immediately defined his as an outsider from the others. He loomed over all the other principals and looked suitably awkward in the Japanese setting. While Okerlund continues to gain ease and presence as an actor, his voice remains small and fails to project. Unless situated far downstage, he was easily covered by the orchestra and other singers.

Dennis Petersen’s Goro was suitable smarmy and the current production never softens the character. Petersen brings to the fore Goro’s insensitivity and crass intrusions with a deft performance fully realized and solidly sung.

Alfredo Dara’s Prince Yamadori was notable for his noble phrasing and dignified presence.

Emmanuel Vallaume’s contribution to the production did little to raise the temperature. His inflexible conducting rarely showed attentiveness to the singers’ phrasing and frequently force them to oversing or be left inaudible. The orchestra, to which Vallaume appeared to devote most of his attention while neglecting the stage, provided a full, plush tone and an expert playing of Puccini’s score.

Michael Yeargan’s set design for the production of Madama Butterfly creates a striking visual image. With stark simplicity it creates an open, flexible acting space using a raked stage and rows of widely space upright beams topped by open framed slats. The space is varied with the use of panels in various configurations. The advantage was a constantly varied playing space and visual interest. But the airy, open design also diminished the sound being projected from the stage and contributing the problems with singers audibility. Stephen Strawbridge provided some striking stylized lighting effects and a generally atmospheric, mood sensitive lighting design.

Ron Daniels, who originally staged this production when it first appeared at the Orpheum Theatre in 1997, returned for this revival. The concept is that Trouble, as an adult, discovers mementos of his parents in a small trunk and the story unfolds with him watching it from the sidelines. This conceit adds nothing to the show but is forgivable until the end where it intrudes and draws attention away from Butterfly at the moment of her death as the adult Trouble encounters himself as a child.

San Francisco Opera’s season had been on an upward trend with the last few productions before the holiday season. Unfortunately, this production means that the season ended much as it began, with an undistinguished run of performances of a Puccini opera.

Kelly Snyder



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