Arts & Events

Madama Butterfly: Two Views + One Comment

Reviews by James Roy MacBean and John A McMullen II
Friday June 27, 2014 - 12:55:00 PM
Patricia Racette (Cio-Cio-San). ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

EDITOR'S NOTE: This week we are fortunate that two critics with different perspectives submitted reviews of the same production, and we're pleased to offer both. For the record, we also saw Butterfly. Let's just say that the sets and costumes were gorgeous but distracting and even confusing, the music was gorgeous as anticipated, and if you sit in the nosebleed seats and don't watch the awful video screens the visual age of the singers matters not a whit. The plot? I always swear I'll never go to Butterfly again unless they change the ending, but I always relent. 


Puccini’s MADAMA BUTTERFLY: A Spectacular Success at San Francisco Opera

Review by James Roy Macbean 


In a stunning new production designed by Japanese artist Jun Kaneko, San Francisco Opera has mounted the finest Madama Butterfly I have ever attended. And that’s saying something, for in 1974 I heard the great Renata Scotto sing Butterfly here in what many consider Scotto’s greatest role ever. Nonetheless, this season’s Butterfly is gorgeously sung by Patricia Racette in what may someday come to be seen as her finest role ever. (Actually, Racette has sung this role twice before in San Francisco, in 2006 and 2007. But somehow I missed both of those prior appearances. In 2007 I was in Lucca, Italy, for the 150th an-niversary of Puccini’s birth in that city, where I heard all three of Puccini’s Il Trittico performed in one evening -- a feat Patricia Racette more than equaled by performing all three soprano roles of Il Trittico in one evening in San Francisco while I was in Lucca.) 

Although I have always appreciated Patricia Racette’s singing in other roles she has sung here, especially the title role in Luisa Miller and Violetta in La Traviata, I must say that I was bowled over by the vocal artistry and dramatic ardor Racette brought to her inter-pretation of the Japanese geisha Cio-Cio-San, aka Madama Butterfly. The plot, of course, revolves around Cio-Cio-San’s betrothal to an American naval lieutenant, one Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, an Ugly American if ever there was one! Make no mistake about it: This opera portrays Americans – or at least Americans abroad – in a very poor light. It may be one of the very first anti-American imperialism dramas produced anywhere. Actually, Puccini discovered this story by attending in London David Belasco’s play. Puccini was so moved by the story he rushed to Belasco’s dressing room when the play was over, and, with tears in his eyes, begged Belasco to grant him the rights to make an opera from this play. Belasco famously said later, “How could I say no to a great Italian opera composer who is crying and hugging me?” 

As Madama Butterfly begins, marriage-broker Goro, sung here by tenor Julius Ahn, shows Pinkerton the house he has rented for the American and his bride-to-be. Pinkerton, sung by the youthful-looking tenor Brian Jagde, contemptuously remarks that this flimsy house would be blown away by a strong wind. It is indeed a flimsy house with sliding walls of shoji screens, but it is situated on a hill high with a wonderful view of Nagasaki’s harbor. The lease on the house, like the marriage contract, is good for 999 years, with an option toterminate either the lease or the marriage on a monthly basis. 

Up the hill comes the American Consul, Sharpless, who, invited to the wedding, cautions Pinkerton to consider carefully what he is doing. Sung by baritone Brian Mulligan, Sharpless seems seriously concerned about Pinkerton’s intentions. Pinkerton, with char-acteristic bravado, sings the aria, “dovunque al mondo, lo Yankee vagabondo,” in which he boasts of touring the world and having a girl in every port. Sharpless repeats his words of caution. Pinkerton blithely disregards Sharpless’s reservations and proposes a toast of whiskey. Over the opening bars of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Pinkerton and Sharpless toast “America forever,” sung in English. Pinkerton follows up this toast with a second to that glorious day in the future when he will marry “una vera sposa Americana”/ “a true American wife.”  

Brian Jagde portrays Pinkerton in this opening scene as a typically brash young American serviceman insensitive to the foreign culture in which he finds himself. Think of GIs in Vietnam or US sailors carousing with teenage bar girls in the prostitution dens surrounding the US Naval base at Subic Bay in the Philippines. But Jagde’s boyish good looks and his robust, ringing tenor have great appeal. When he sings of Butterfly’s beauty and grace, he seems genuinely captivated by his delicate wisp of a geisha girl. 

Soon Butterfly and her wedding party come up the hill, her bridesmaids dressed in brightly colored Japanese robes of Jun Kaneko’s design, carrying lovely parasols. Coming last in this procession is Cio-Cio-San, dressed in white. Though made up to look vaguely Japanese and sporting a black wig with long braids, Patricia Racette doesn’t exactly look like the 15 year-old girl Butterfly declares herself to be. But Racette has all the Japanese mannerisms down pat, employing frequent bows to show respect, and shyly avoiding any physical approaches by her husband-to-be. She sings that she is the happiest girl in all Japan and comes to answer the call of love. Moreover, she tells Pinkerton she has renounced her own gods and gone to the local Christian mission to adopt his religion. 

I have only two quibbles with the staging of this Madama Butterfly; and they both crop up in the wedding scene. One involves casting. Cio-Cio-San’s mother, in a minimal singing role performed by Laurel Cameron Porter, looks like she, not Patricia Racette, could be a 15 year-old girl. Thus we have a mother looking like she should be the daughter, and a daughter looking like she should be the mother. However, we don’t go to operas for realism. My second quibble, however, is a bit more serious. Who in the world are the figures dressed all in black with black boxes on their heads? Here, in the wedding scene, they act as supernumeraries or stagehands, and they do so later as well. But why do they wear black boxes on their heads? I have an idea about this, but I’ll expound it later. 

Under conductor Nicola Luisotti’s baton, the Opera orchestra unerringly navigates between Puccini’s lyrical passages of western music and the frequent motifs derived fromtraditional Japanese folk-songs in the pentatonic scale. It must also be noted that this excellent Madama Butterfly production is sensitively lit by lighting designer Gary Marder. 

The wedding contract is quickly signed. However, two foreboding hints of the coming tragedy ensue in the wedding scene. When Butterfly shyly shows Pinkerton her collection of precious little objects, a sudden danger signal sounds in the orchestra with two plunging descents across an augmented fourth, as Butterfly holds a long, narrow sword in its sheath. It is, she says, a present from the Mikado to her father. Goro whispers to Pinkerton that Butterfly’s father obeyed the implicit order to use it on himself. The second ominous incident occurs when a member of Butterfly’s family, a Buddhist priest, or Bonze, comes rushing in to accuse Butterfly, justly, of abandoning her ancestral religion. The Bonze, sung here by bass Morris Robinson, brings down a curse on Butterfly and furiously orders her relatives to renounce her, which they do, exiting the scene in all haste. Butterfly weeps, but in the fading daylight she declares herself alone yet happy in her love for Mr. B.F. Pinkerton. As scholar Julian Budden notes, “Madama Butterfly … is never more Japanese than when she imagines herself American.” 

There ensues Puccini’s famous love duet, sung beautifully here by Patricia Racette and Brian Jagde. The duet’s opening main section, “Viene la sera,” is followed by Pinkerton crooning his praise of Butterfly’s beautiful eyes. After some recitative about butterflies being impaled by a pin, Pinkerton, his ardor mounting, approaches Butterfly and re-peatedly entreats her with the word “Vieni” to come inside the house. She stares raptly at the night sky with its myriad of stars, until she and Pinkerton join in ecstatic unison as they go into the house. Thus ends Act I of Madama Butterfly.  

Act II in this production utilizes the same set as Act I. But we soon learn that an interval of three years has occurred, during which time Pinkerton has shipped out, though promising to return, “when the robins build their nests,” as Butterfly reminds her maid, Suzuki. Sung here by the excellent mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong, Suzuki expresses her doubts and bursts into tears. This elicits from Butterfly her famous aria, “Un bel di vedremo,” in which she pictures in vivid detail Pinkerton’s return. Sung gorgeously by Patricia Racette, this aria received tumultuous applause. 

Consul Sharpless arrives bearing a letter from Pinkerton, which he begins reading to Butterfly. However, with frequent interruptions, first by Butterfly, then by the arrival of Goro and Prince Yamadori, Sharpless never gets very far in his reading. Butterfly explains to Sharpless that Goro has been trying to persuade her to divorce Pinkerton and marry the wealthy Prince Yamadori. Butterfly is adamant that she will not do so. Yamadori, sung here by Mexican-American tenor Efrain Solis, entreats Butterfly with declarations of love; but she remains steadfast in her refusal. Goro and Yamadori depart. 

Sharpless suggests that Butterfly reconsider Yamadori’s proposal, but this only moves Butterfly to bring out her three year-old son by Pinkerton, born after his father’s departure. She begs Sharpless to write Pinkerton and inform him of the existence of his beautiful child. Sharpless agrees to do so, and departs. Hearing a cannon shot, Butterfly picks up her telescope and spots Pinkerton’s ship arriving in the port below, as the orchestra repeats the melody of “un bel di” in pianissimo on flute, violins and violas. Now euphoric, Butterfly orders Suzuki to spread flowers throughout the house to welcome home her husband. As Suzuki and Butterfly deck the house with flowers, they sing the famous “flower duet,” linking two female voices in lilting thirds. 

There ensues the long orchestral intermezzo known as the “night vigil,” in which the two women and child await Pinkerton’s return. This music reveals Puccini’s indebtedness to Wagner; and in this production the music is accompanied by images of ever-changing brightly colored abstract patterns of Jun Kaneko’s design projected onto three screens, culminating in a tribute to Japanese animation with three human figures – Butterfly, Suzuki, and the child -- gradually taking shape in line drawings. Meanwhile, the afore-mentioned box-headed figures crawl insidiously around the outside of Butterfly’s darkened house, suggesting a menacing fate that awaits Butterfly. Indeed, Director Leslie Swack-hamer writes in a program note that she and designer Jun Kaneko strove to achieve something of the atmosphere of Greek tragedy, so my hunch is that the box-headed figures represent something like the Fates or Furies in Greek tragedy. (But this still doesn’t explain why they wear black boxes on their heads!) 

When morning comes, Sharpless and Pinkerton arrive on tip-toe, accompanied by Pinkerton’s American wife, Kate. Finding Suzuki alone outside the house, they seek to enlist her help in persuading Butterfly to relinquish her son to Kate Pinkerton’s care. Though devastated for Butterfly’s sake, Suzuki agrees to help, and goes inside to prepare Butterfly for the shock that awaits her. Now, belatedly realizing the pain he has caused, Pinkerton bids a poignant farewell to his past happiness here in the aria, “Addio fiorito asil,” robustly sung by Brian Jagde. Then, overcome with remorse, Pinkerton flees the scene, unable to face Butterfly. 

When Butterfly comes out of the house and sees Sharpless, she searches eagerly but in vain for Pinkerton. But she stops short when she spies Kate. Quickly comprehending the situation, she falls to her knees. Kate, sung here by Jacqueline Piccolino, steps forth and promises to love Butterfly’s son as if he were her own child. Sharpless adds that Butterfly must think of what’s best for her child. 

Patricia Racette is riveting as Butterfly in this harrowing moment. Weeping, Butterfly mutters that “they’ll take everything from me, even my child.” Pulling herself together, she consents on condition that Pinkerton come himself to take the child. Satisfied, Sharpless and Kate depart. Butterfly retreats to the house and starts to prepare herself for ritual hara kiri; but Suzuki hurriedly sends the child to Butterfly. Taking her son in her arms, Butterfly tells him to look long and carefully at his mother’s face, saying he must always remember her. Then, placing on her son’s head the US Navy Lieutenant’s cap Pinkerton has left behind, she sends her son back to Suzuki. Now a long, slow chromatic descent occurs in the orchestra as Butterfly unsheathes her father’s sword and cuts her own throat. As she slumps forward, a rush of semiquavers is heard in the violins and violas. In the distance, Brian Jagde’s voice is heard as Pinkerton cries out, “Butterfly. Butterfly. Butterfly.” Thus ended as beautiful and dramatically intense a production of Madama Butterfly as I have ever experienced. 


The Pedestrian Opera Review: “Madama Butterfly” at SF Opera

Reviewed by John A McMullen II 


I had never seen Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” before last Tuesday. 

For those who had, I imagine the San Francisco Opera production was superlative. It integrated the exceptional voice of Patricia Racette who is well-known for this role with the unrestrained and colorful design imagination of Jun Kaneko. 

The set rivaled the singing. A spiraling ramp down onto concentric circles leading to a round raised platform stage left with a large diorama behind comprise the spare set provides a canvas for Gary Marder’s extraordinary lighting design in ever-changing lush and saturated colors. 

Kaneko’s costume and projection designs are overdone and tires the eye with its “busy-ness.” 

(Kaneko designed “The Magic Flute” at SF Opera in 2012). 

A vertically hung display of polka-dotted and striped kimonos greet the audience at the pre-set, and that same eye-boggling pattern and color scheme are used throughout. The American Consul and Naval Officer have red-striped labels on parti-colored suits, and it is truly a variegated world. 

For those aficionados who have seen this opera perhaps multiple times and who mainly attend to appreciate the exceptional voices, this production was perhaps unique and appealing in its quirky design and remarkable singing. 

For neophytes like myself, I found it distracting and difficult to believe, 

If you don’t know the story: The US demanded entry to Japan in the later 19-century. A sailor—well, an officer—could “rent-a-bride” for his stay. Lt. Pinkerton “marries” 15 year old Cio-Cio-San whose noble family has been impoverished since the Emperor directed her father to commit seppuku (ritual suicide). She takes the initiative to convert to Christianity for which she is ostracized by the community. Pinkerton ships out; Cio-Cio-San (pronounced “cho-cho-san”) discovers she is with child. Instead of moving on to the next bidder, she waits for Pinkerton’s return, hopefully scouting every ship that comes to port with a spy-glass—for three years! When the lieutenant finally returns to claim his son, he is accompanied by his American wife. Our geisha is devastated. She gives him his three-year-old son, and kills herself. 

Patricia Racette made her opera debut with this role in 1988 at 22 with the now-defunct, traveling San Francisco Western Opera whose mission was to bring opera to the hinterland. The idea of using such a young voice was criticized (though Maria Callas sang the lead in Cavalleria Rusticana at 15). 

Critic Bernard Holland said of Ms. Racette’s 1988 performance, "Patricia Racette was an especially compelling actress as Cio-Cio San, and it was acting achieved through music – just as opera performance should be. Yet Miss Racette has a soprano voice that, while musically and technically reliable, is never terribly luxurious in sound." 

In the 26 intervening years, Ms. Racette’s voice has bloomed into a powerful and emotionally moving instrument. However, my suspension of disbelief was challenged with a 49 year-old woman playing a girl from ages 15 to 18. 

The non-Asian cast does not endeavor to don makeup that would make them believably Japanese; they wear wigs and kimonos, but that is the extent of their change of persona. 

Lt. Pinkerton is played by Brian Jagde with “Ken Doll” looks and a cookie-cutter operatic tenor. His highlight is in his climactic act of shamefully fleeing from confronting Cio-Cio-San. Baritone Brian Mulligan, playing a sympathetic American Consul, gives a moving performance. 

It is the performance of diminutive mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki, handmaid to Madame Butterfly, that is most impressive both vocally and dramatically. 

Music Director Nicola Luisotti’s directing brings the SF Opera Orchestra to more than its usual excellence 

If you are a designer, or if you know the opera well, you may truly enjoy this. 

I look forward to revisiting this work when a younger lead plays the role with a more traditionally stage design. 



“Madama Butterfly”

Music by Giacomo Puccini, Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa 

Performances remaining: June 27, July 3, July 6, July 9, 

San Francisco Opera 

War Memorial Opera House 

301 Van Ness Avenue 

San Francisco, CA