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San Francisco Opera
Butterfly at SFO, with Ahn, Jagde, Jere Torkelsen (the Registrar), Hadleigh Adams (the Imperial Commissioner) and Racette
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera 2014
Much of the intermission buzz at San Francisco Opera's June 15 performance of Madama Butterfly had to do with the colorful, eye-catching production designed by Jun Kaneko and directed by Leslie Swackhamer. Kaneko's designs, introduced at Opera Omaha in 2006 and new to San Francisco, employed a long ramp that spiraled down to the stage and a raised disc that served, with shuttling Shoji screens, as the foundation for Cio-Cio-San's house. Abstract digital images — squiggles, grids, pulsating lines — were projected on overhead screens; costumes, in color-blocked stripes and black-and-white polka dots, were a vibrant mix of East and West. The production, which suggested both the boldness of contemporary art and the traditional dress of early-twentieth-century Nagasaki, occasionally failed to sustain interest — one series of screens resembled oversized Rubik's cubes — but much of what Kaneko created was striking and visually apt. A parade of kimono-clad choristers preceded Cio-Cio-San's first entrance; a starlit sky pulsed in shades of midnight blue during the Act I love duet. This Butterfly committed seppuku before a rising sun that oozed blood as she plunged a long knife into her throat.
Patricia Racette, who sang Cio-Cio-San in SFO's 2006 and '07 revivals of its Ron Daniels staging, once again demonstrated strong credentials as Puccini's doomed heroine. Shading the character with subtle touches of fragility, sweetness, humor and wounded dignity, the soprano, after a slightly breathy entrance, rose to deliver a performance of vocal majesty and devastating dramatic fervor. "Un bel dì" was limned with tenderness and beautiful timbre, and the final scene was shattering; if the audience was captivated by Kaneko's production, it was Racette's elegant assumption that made this opening unforgettable, capping a season that had already welcomed Racette in the title role of Dolores Claiborne, as Margherita and Elena in Mefistofele and as Julie LaVerne in Show Boat.
Tenor Brian Jagde was a bluff, swaggering Pinkerton, his large, shapely instrument occasionally pushed to harshness. Elizabeth DeShong's generous, well-placed mezzo yielded a fine Suzuki, and Brian Mulligan made a strong, sympathetic Sharpless. Tenor Julius Ahn was an agile Goro, bass Morris Robinson an imposing Bonze; Efrain Solis, as Yamadori, was elegant of voice and demeanor, and Jacqueline Piccolino sang prettily as Kate Pinkerton.
Director Swackhamer moved the cast around intelligently, although one had to question the wisdom of having Suzuki slug Goro. The chorus sounded wonderful throughout. Nicola Luisotti, conducting Puccini's two-act version, drew a warm, well-paced performance from the ensemble. His emphasis on orchestral color and flow, and his ability to bring home Puccini's big dramatic moments, meshed well with Kaneko's animated settings.
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