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Ensemble

Ringing Intensity

'Madama Butterfly' from San Diego Opera,
reviewed by MARIA NOCKIN

 

Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) was already a well-known composer when he started writing Madama Butterfly. He had risen to fame with La Bohème and continued in the spotlight with Tosca. In 1900, while he was in London supervising the première production of Tosca at Covent Garden, he saw a performance of David Belasco's play Madame Butterfly. Puccini knew little English, but he was fascinated by the Japanese ambiance and its contrast with the culture of B F Pinkerton, the American naval officer. He knew that this story could become the basis for an interesting opera. When the show was over, he also looked at the story by John Luther Long, after which Belasco had patterned his play.

Once he had secured the rights to Madame Butterfly, Puccini called in Luigi Illica (1857-1919) and Giuseppe Giacosa (1847-1906) who had completed the text for Manon Lescaut and written the librettos of La bohème and Tosca for him. Illica was a playwright who knew drama and the stage. He also wrote librettos for Umberto Giordano's Andrea Chenier and Siberia, as well as Alfredo Catalani's La Wally. Giacosa was a lawyer, poet and professor of literature who wrote a most successful one act comedy called Una partita a scacchi ('A game of Chess') and La Dame de Challant ('The Lady of Challant'), a vehicle for noted French actress Sarah Bernhardt.

Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio-San (left) and Suzanna Guzmán as Suzuki in San Diego Opera's production of 'Madama Butterfly'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio-San (left) and Suzanna Guzmán as Suzuki in San Diego Opera's production of 'Madama Butterfly'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard

Illica planned out the opera, divided it into acts and scenes and drafted the dialogue. After that, when Puccini was satisfied with the outline of the piece, Giacosa transformed the unvarnished prose text into poetic verses. The première of Madama Butterfly took place at La Scala in Milan on 17 February 1904, but the opera was not a complete success in its original form. It was revised for performances in Brescia (1904), London (1905), and Washington DC (1906). Finally, at the very end of 1906, the composer and his librettists arrived at a more or less definitive version for performances at the Paris Opera Comique.

Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio-San and Joseph Hu as Goro in San Diego Opera's 'Madama Butterfly'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio-San and Joseph Hu as Goro in San Diego Opera's 'Madama Butterfly'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard

San Diego Opera presented Madama Butterfly on 12 May 2009, as a revival of the 1998 production originally conceived by Francesca Zambello for Houston Grand Opera, the Dallas Opera and the Grand Théâtre de Genève. In San Diego, the stage direction was by Garnett Bruce who told the story in a generally understandable manner. The Zambello version presents many memorable images, but in some cases she has the chorus of American Consulate workers singing lines that were designed to be sung by Japanese characters.

Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio-San in 'Madama Butterfly'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio-San in 'Madama Butterfly'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard

Cio-Cio-San is one of Patricia Racette's most appreciated roles. She has sung it in many of the great opera houses of the world and on this evening she was a most convincing heroine. In her entrance scene and in her aria, 'Un bel di', she regaled the audience with floods of well-supported golden tone. Although she no longer looks like a fifteen-year-old, she got her character across the footlights and there were few dry eyes at her final scene.

Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio-San and Carlo Ventre as B F Pinkerton. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio-San and Carlo Ventre as B F Pinkerton. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard

Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton was sung by Uruguayan tenor Carlo Ventre who was Radames in last year's San Diego Aida. For most of his scenes he was a happy-go-lucky naval officer who did not expect the geisha to wait for his return, but his remorse was palpable when he realized his error. He sang the beautiful first act duet with soaring robust tones. In the third act aria, 'Addio, fiorito asil', he showed considerable vocal acumen and an ability to act with his voice.

Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio-San in 'Madama Butterfly'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio-San in 'Madama Butterfly'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard

Suzuki was to have been sung by Chinese-American mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao who, unfortunately, has been stricken with a serious illness and is currently undergoing treatment. Luckily for the San Diego company, Metropolitan Opera mezzo Suzanna Guzmán was between engagements. She was a wonderfully caring confidante who moved in a traditional Japanese manner and sang with cream-laden tonal beauty.

Carlo Ventre as B F Pinkerton. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
Carlo Ventre as B F Pinkerton. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard

Of all the robust and impressive voices in this performance, the most definitive was that of Sharpless, Malcolm Mackenzie. His sound seems to grow each time we hear him and, currently, his vocalism is a wave of ringing intensity. He made the Consul much more of a three dimensional character than usual. Smooth-sounding tenor Joseph Hu was a memorable Goro who would have been happy to help Butterfly out of her predicament if she had listened to him. The wealthy and good looking suitor he brought to meet her, Prince Yamadori, was sung with finesse by Jason Detwiler.

Joseph Hu as Goro in San Diego Opera's 'Madama Butterfly'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
Joseph Hu as Goro in San Diego Opera's 'Madama Butterfly'. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard

Scott Sikon was a malevolent, evil sounding Bonze who made the audience realize that Butterfly's relatives would never dare contact her again. As the uncomprehending Mrs Kate Pinkerton, Crystal Jarrell was a charming new bride with a clear, sweet voice. Timothy Todd Simmons' chorus sang their beautiful Asian style harmonies with precision and added much to Puccini's musical tapestry. The orchestra played with romantic fervor for conductor Edoardo Müller and his well chosen tempi made the performance unfold smoothly.

Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio-San. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard
Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio-San. Photo © 2009 Ken Howard

Sadly, this was the last of San Diego Opera's productions for this year. We have been used to their giving us five productions per season, but because of the current recession, we will get only four operas in 2010: La bohème, Nabucco, Romeo and Juliet and La traviata. The casting, however, is magnificent so we can expect fine performances once again from this excellent company.

Copyright © 25 May 2009 Maria Nockin,
Arizona USA

-------

GIACOMO PUCCINI

MADAMA BUTTERFLY

LUIGI ILLICA

SAN DIEGO OPERA

PATRICIA RACETTE

UN BEL DI

JOSEPH HU

SCOTT SIKON

TIMOTHY TODD SIMMONS

EDOARDO MUELLER

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

ITALY

JAPAN

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