Opera’s Japanese ‘Madama Butterfly’

Giacomo Puccini’s 1904 “Madama Butterfly,” the opera about a tragic love affair between a young Japanese woman and an American naval officer in 19th century Nagasaki is, of course, thematically Japanese.

But the popular opera — 195 performances in San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House, second only to another Puccini opera “La Boheme” — has very Italian music, and a story based on an American play by David Belasco, making many of its productions seem faux Japanese.

Nicely, San Francisco Opera’s current “Butterfly” has a real Japanese feel — even if its music director is Italian (Nicola Luisotti); its design is by an American Broadway great (Harold Prince), and its soprano in the title role is Bulgarian (Svetla Vassileva).

Prince’s production is what creates some semblance of authenticity from the get-go. A drop-curtain seems directly from “Pacific Overtures”; traditional Japanese theater’s kurogo or koken (masked, black-clad stage hands) are used; and Clarke Dunham’s revolving building looks like a home in an affluent neighborhood of Nagasaki.

The homage to the land of rising sun is timely in The City now, with the ongoing celebration of the Japan’s first ambassadors arriving here 150 years ago, the Asian Art Museum’s new exhibit of exquisite Japanese screens and the Legion of Art show “Japanesque,” which celebrates the Impressionists’ use of Japanese themes and images.

Yet Christine Binder’s costumes for Cio Cio San, which are more appropriate for a 19th-century French setting, are a startling departure from production’s distinct Japanese style. Perhaps the choice was intentional, to indicate the heroine’s desire to pass for an American, yet it’s strange nevertheless.

Musically, it’s difficult to go wrong with such a lush, well-known score, and Luisotti’s direction covers the range well, from quiet passages — the Humming Chorus ruined by squeaking from the revolving set — to big, stormy ones.

However, some sparkling, surprising details from Donald Runnicles’ conducting in 1995, 2002 and especially 2007, when he and Patricia Racette created a “Butterfly” for the ages, were missed.

Vassileva has a big voice, but her singing was uneven, with a poor opening and individual notes and phrases neither beautiful nor connected.

In the role of cad Pinkerton, Stefano Secco exhibited a beautiful, natural tenor, slightly strained when he reached for high notes or more volume. Of the many former Merola and Adler program singers in the cast, Quinn Kelsey is the standout, as Sharpless.

OPERA REVIEW
Madama Butterfly

Presented by San Francisco Opera

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 15, 23, 29, Nov. 5, 27; 7:30 p.m. Oct. 20, 26, Nov. 11, 17; 2 p.m. Nov. 14, 21
Tickets: $25 to $320
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

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