‘Butterfly’ shock on Memorial stage

What in blazes are these people doing, sniffling, wiping their eyes, some even blubbering softly? Why are they carrying on like this? Why is my usually unsentimental companion sobbing? Why am I?

This is “Madama Butterfly,” for heaven’s sake, the old Puccini potboiler, with music heard as often as “Jingle Bells” in December. At War Memorial on Saturday afternoon, we attended the “premiere” (this season, that is) of the pretty but decade-old Ron Daniels/Michael Yeargan production, with a fine cast, but most of them heard numerous times in these roles right here, in San Francisco, an allegedly sophisticated, blasé city.

So what’s with the general meltdown and the ovation that followed the performance, a massive crowd staying through all the curtain calls, screaming for Patricia Racette, shouting “brava!” for Zheng Cao, hissing the debuting Brandon Jovanovich, one of the best Pinkertons in local history, vocally sensational, and such a mean — if handsome — cad that disapproval for his character is of the highest accolade? All this carrying on: so tearful, abandoned, happy, riotous …

What happened?

I wish I could explain — no, bottle and sell the stuff. It’s one of the many mysteries of opera how an old warhorse can take the Kentucky Derby by 10 lengths.

David Gockley sort of threw in five “Butterfly” performances at the end of the season, surely to help the box office (there was a good-size standing-room crowd even at the quaint noon opening curtain), and he cast it well, but even he must know that it was the Opera Gods that made it all work this amazingly well.

For many years now, Donald Runnicles has kept surprising new listeners with his Puccini. His musical direction today was solid gold all the way through, passionate and restrained, playful and elegant, deeply-felt but not sentimental, “just right.”

In Act 1, Jovanovich made an amazing debut, satisfying the tricky dichotomy of Pinkerton’s vocal requirements: a strong lyrical/narrative sound with an (anti)heroic edge. The tenor — already well received locally as Don José in a recent Walnut Creek Festival Opera “La Tragédie de Carmen” — projected effortlessly in the 3,000-seat auditorium, with fine diction, and he cut a letter-perfect Pinkerton figure physically and dramatically.

Racette has owned the role of Cio-Cio-San for many years here and around the world. With superb vocal and dramatic presence, she takes only a few minutes to overcome the challenge of portraying a 15-year-old. She and Jovanovich sang beautifully together, even if short on personal chemistry that would have improved the duet ending Act 1.

While one could “evaluate” the first act, the second half of the opera turned so heady that no brain could be applied to it properly. Debuting stage director Kathleen Belcher — showing the same restraint and excellence dramatically as Runnicles imposed from the pit — opened the curtain on Racette in an awkwardly reclining position, conveying the feeling of discomfort, pain even. The soprano’s voice opened fully, and shestarted pouring forth a golden sound of great beauty, but nothing “pretty” — music at its ideal, unaffected grace.

In the end, it was a “Butterfly” shockingly different, astonishingly grand. Without a single bizarre, outrageous act of “director’s opera” infamy, the crew and cast of this production gave a shining example how simplicity, authenticity, and excellence can offer the alternative to “static opera.”

IF YOU GO

Madama Butterfly

Presented by San Francisco Opera

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; 1 and 8 p.m. Saturday

Tickets: $15 to $275

Contact: (415) 864-3330 or www.sfopera.com

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