Puccini's "Madama Butterfly" opened Tuesday in a performance that was notable for sheer volume rather than beautiful singing, as well as for an almost visceral theatricality provided by music director Nicola Luisotti and the opera orchestra, who played with unleashed fluency.
"Madama Butterfly," the second most often performed work by this company, is well loved for its dramatic score and its narrative about a loutish U.S. Navy man named Pinkerton who purchases Cio-Cio-San as his bride while serving in Japan and returns with an American wife to adopt the child of their union.
Harold Prince's production, created for Chicago Lyric Opera in 1982, is a pretty, old-fashioned affair that is greatly enhanced by the use of Koken, back-clad assistants who move about the stage rhythmically, working with props and costumes as they turn the set.
Puccini's score etches the characters in detail, calling for a soprano and tenor of large range and considerable vocal and dramatic skill who can create on the one hand a fifteen-year-old child bride and on the other a youthful suitor who seduces and betrays Cio-Cio-San and has the nerve to ask forgiveness at the opera's end.
Bulgarian soprano Svetla Vassileva and Italian tenor Stefano Secco had the dramatic capabilities to score in their roles. She is striking and diminutive and has some mastery of Japanese gesture, and he is handsome and authoritative onstage, but for most of the performance they seemed to be trying to outvocalize each other, to spirit Puccini's glorious melodies to the rafters and beyond.
Vassileva, a memorable Liu in the 1998 "Turandot" here, made her entrance like a stage four hurricane and never calmed down during the three-hour performance - it was a crescendo from curtain to curtain that worked well when she sang of love, as in "un bel di," but not when she consoled her son "Sorrow" or approached the tragic finale.
Secco sang with a tailored Italianate voice of considerable ardor, but there was little vocal grace or gentleness in his performance. He was persuasive vocally only when he expressed his remorse for the betrayal of Butterfly in Act 2.
Quinn Kelsey and Daveda Karanas portrayed the U.S. Consul Sharpless and Butterfly's maid Suzuki, who try to protect Cio-Cio-San, with an extra measure of warmth and handsome presence, representing the humanity at the center of the opera. Also outstanding was the bluff Bonze of Christian Van Horn and Thomas Glenn's Goro.
Jose Maria Condemi directs with simplicity and engaging detail: Butterfly's suicide is always a tough call, but here it is quick and realistic, and having a red ribbon drawn from her neck by a Koken after her death makes a fine dramatic point.
The production is attractively costumed by Florence Klotz, although Goro's and Cio-Cio-San's Western dress are confusing, and beautifully lit by Christine Binder, who fills an important role in her debut with the company
"Madame Butterfly" has eleven more performances at the San Francisco Opera, with the roles of Cio-Cio-San and Sharpless double cast, through Nov. 27.