Madama Butterfly Opens Her Wings

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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.

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