San Francisco's 'Butterfly' is a Visual Delight

By Elsa Tranter

All photos by Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

At San Francisco Opera tonight, Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian soared in the title role of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.  Her Cio-Cio San wavered a bit in the beginning (our indulgence was begged as both she and her co-star Italian tenor Vincenzo Costanzo were getting over colds), but she came into her own in the second act and gave a vocally and dramatically strong performance as the ill-fated heroine.  Mr. Costanzo, as the cad Lt. B.F. Pinkerton was a bit weaker.  His demeanor was never convincing as a naval officer (this reviewer wanted to shout out ‘stand up straight’ to him several times) and his voice showed the effect of his illness.  Their scenes together almost caught fire, but maybe the dampness outside kept them from igniting. This opera marked Mr. Costanzo’s U.S. opera debut—one hopes his voice will improve in the remaining performances.

The other principals sang and acted with clear and bright tones—Anthony Clark Evans was especially moving as the more honorable American Consul Sharpless.  San Francisco Opera Adler Fellow Zanda Svede was a somewhat physically dominating Suzuki (and dressed, surprisingly, in pants); Julius Ahn was an agile and bright Goro; Raymond Aceto was an appropriately menacing Bonze;  and rounding out the cast were current Adler Fellows Edward Nelson as Prince Yamadori, Matthew Stump as the Imperial Commissioner and Julie Adams as Kate Pinkerton,  They were all in good voice and were dramatically realistic in their roles.  Ms. Adams was especially effective as the American wife and could have given Mr. Costanzo posture lessons. The San Francisco Opera Orchestra, led by Yves Abel, sounded solid, with excellent nuance throughout, but most of the time the tempo seemed slow and a little draggy.  The opera chorus, as usual, was flawless in their singing and acting, and their traditional kimonos in bright and varied patterns were a treat to the eye.

The sets and costumes were designed by Jun Kaneko, a Japanese ceramic artist, in his first foray into opera.  It was commissioned for Opera Omaha in 2006 and has been seen in many opera houses since then (including in San Francisco in 2014).  The single set depicted a downward spiraling ramp and radiating circles representing a Zen garden or a rippling sea. The lighting was especially effective in creating different moods as the scenes changed.

The vivid colors and patterns, and the video projections borrow from traditional Japanese theater and succeeded in updating the opera in a way that didn’t detract from the traditional story.

Four performances remain:  November 26, 29, December 1 at 7:30 and December 4 at 2:00.  If you go, take a hankie!

Elsa Tranter is a Bostonian who has lived in Berkeley for over 40 years and has been an opera goer for most of those years.  She worked as a graduate student adviser at UC Berkeley and still attends Cal Performances regularly.  Her favorite composer is Wagner and her favorite opera is Tristan und Isolde.