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A Pure Heart Broken by a Scoundrel

San Francisco
War Memorial Opera House
10/12/2010 -  & October 15*, 20, 23, 26, 28, 29, 2010
Giacomo Puccini: Madama Butterfly
Svetla Vassileva (Cio-Cio-San), Stefano Secco (Pinkerton), Quinn Kelsey (Sharpless), Daveda Karanas (Suzuki), Thomas Glenn (Goro), Bojan Knezevic (The Imperial Commissioner), Jere Torkelsen (The Official Registrar), Christopher Jackson (Uncle Yakuside), Rachelle Perry (Mother), Ann Hughes (Aunt), Christian Van Horn (The Bonze), Austin Kness (Prince Yamadori), Rebecca Chen (child), Sara Gartland (Kate Pinkerton)
San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus, Ian Robertson (chorus director), Nicola Luisotti (conductor)
Harold Prince and Lyric Opera of Chicago (production), Jose Maria Condemi (director), Clarke Dunham (set designer), Ken Billington and Christine Binder (lighting designers), Morgan Robinson (assistant stage director), Rachel C. Henneberry (stage manager), Florence Klotz (costume designer), Kristi Johnson (costume supervisor)

S. Vassileva (© Cory Weaver/courtesy of SFO)

San Francisco Opera's October 15 two-act version of Madama Butterfly was a beautifully staged theatrical triumph. This offering by Harold Prince reflects his vast talent and experience as a Broadway producer and Tony Award ® recipient. Spinto soprano Svetla Vassileva brought full dramatic intensity to her role as the doomed Cio-Cio-San, singing from her heart with contagious passion. Ms. Vassileva produces a stylized, exaggerated vibrato which may not be to everyone's liking, but was used to excellent effect as Butterfly. Unfortunately, her voice was strained near the end of the last act; this is a challenging technical role and singers must have the ability to pace their effort to ensure evenness through the entire performance. “Un bel di, vedremo” was an audience pleaser for which Ms. Vassileva was accordingly lauded; one may wish for a refreshing interpretation of one of the most popular arias in the repertory, but such an occurrence is the exception rather than a certainty. Ms. Vassileva's stage presence was exceptional, with precise gestures and choreographic motion. Tenor Stefano Secco as the callous Lieutenant Pinkerton displayed his vocal prowess with confidence, although he informed his character with less crassness than what was deserving. His technique is solid, although one would like to see improved artistic development, which certainly is within his ability. Suzuki, Butterfly's maid, a mezzo-soprano, was portrayed by Daveda Karanas, who unexpectedly sang a lovely duet with Vassileva in the second act. This production was the uncut “Paris” version and thus supplied more music than do many productions of this opera. Baritone Quinn Kelsey's Sharpless quite nearly stole the thunder from Secco's caddish Pinkerton, with extraordinary singing and inspired drama. An appropriately sleazy Goro as the marriage broker was portrayed by Thomas Glenn, a tenor with limited power but much enthusiasm. The smaller roles of bass Bojan Kneževiċ as The Imperial Commissioner, bass Jere Torkelsen as The Official Registrar, bass Christopher Jackson as Butterfly's uncle, and Christian Van Horn, bass, as The Bonze, provided masterful support to the main characters. Mezzo-soprano Sara Gartland, Pinkerton's American wife, seemed a bit of a charming soubrette. Tenor Austin Kness clearly enjoyed his role as Prince Yamadori.

Like so many operatic plots, Madama Butterfly presents problems. Why is she so willing to turn from her family and culture? Why is a geisha so unworldly? And, ultimately, why does Pinkerton and his new wife want the child? Nevertheless, such issues are sublimated within the operatic genre, although they may make some roles harder to interpret.

Staging was clever and effective, consistent with the Oriental locale, as settings revolved on a turntable with static stage backgrounds nuanced by expert lighting. The stealthy turning of the unit set by koken, with masterful unobtrusiveness and slow, deliberate motion, metaphorically served as foreshadowing to Butterfly's doomed fate.

Again, the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus were ethereal, especially when given the opportunity to play Puccini's gorgeous score.

This writer wishes the next observation would not be necessary. Many audience members attending performances at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House are notoriously and consistently rude – leaving the hall before applause has begun, whispering during the performance, and wearing jeans, t-shirts and flip-flops. Many of those who are polite enough to stay and express appreciation are stingy with their accolades. A five-minute ovation is rare, no matter how splendid the performance. Such behavior is embarrassing to those who recognize the tremendous effort and sacrifice that infuses performance art, and, worse, hurtful and disrespectful to the performers.

Claudia K. Nichols



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