By Pat Launer
Did you know there was a real-life Madame Butterfly?
In 1898, Luther Long, an American lawyer, published just such a story in Century Magazine, the tale of a geisha abandoned by a U.S. Naval officer (though, unlike the tragic operatic figure, this Butterfly chooses to stay alive and remain with her child).
In 1900, when he was in London to attend the premiere of “Tosca,” Giacomo Puccini happened to see a staged version of the story, and he was smitten. The one-act play, by writer/impresario David Belasco, was titled “Madame Butterfly, a Tragedy of Japan.”
By 1904, Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” premiered at La Scala. Despite its rocky start, and after several rewrites, it became the composer’s favorite creation, and of course, it’s been an audience darling ever since.
This is the ninth “Butterfly” production for San Diego Opera since 1971, and the fourth directed by Garnett Bruce. The current production is new to San Diego, with sets and costumes from the Opéra de Montréal.
The look (scenic design by Roberto Oswald) is beautiful, a layered series of tall, translucent, shoji screens, flanked by delicate cherry blossom boughs that achingly shower petals at the outset and the end of the opera.
In the first act, however, the set becomes a distraction, as the screens are repeatedly moved back and forth, seemingly randomly, by the performers. The movement of bodies during the wedding scene is also not quite organic. Later, in the transition from Act 2 to 3, there is an extended period of complete inaction on the stage that highlights the lush orchestration but offers nothing to look at.
One commendable directorial choice was the casting of two African Americans as Butterfly and her devoted maidservant and confidante, Suzuki. It’s perhaps something of a surprise, given the high-profile, gorgeously powdered Asian face that has been used in advertising to promote the production.
Though the choice may be philosophically provocative, it doesn’t affect the opera at all. No political points are being made here.
As Cio-Cio San (Butterfly), Latonia Moore is a marvel, with a supple, crystalline voice, robust at the top and bottom of her expansive range, and capable of magnificent nuance and variation. As a performer, she presents such a strong presence that she overshadows the other singers. In the first act, it’s difficult to see her as a “delicate” or “fragile.” Her performance of the iconic aria, “Un Bel Di” is stunning. Later, her anguish and near madness are palpable, though she has a limited range of physical moves.
As the dastardly Pinkerton, Romanian tenor Teodor Illincai could project more vocal and physical swagger, but he delivers in the first act love duet and his third act remorse (and cowardice).
Mezzo Soprano J’nai Bridges is solid and focused as Suzuki, and the women’s duets are appealing. Anthony Clark Evans, as the American Consul with a conscience, does fine, but he could ramp up the emotional quotient of his moral dilemma. Taiwanese tenor Joseph Hu is aptly antic and toad-like as the marriage broker and local gossip, Goro.
Under the baton of Canadian conductor Yves Abel, the San Diego Symphony exhibits both power and refinement, but sometimes, the lush music overpowers the singers. The chorus, though their contribution is small, sounds and looks lovely, especially the females’ striking red costumes (almost all the rest are black and white, as designed by Aníbal Lapíz).
A local and national favorite, Chris Rynne should be roundly applauded for his magnificent and subtle lighting design, which exquisitely evokes the place, the time and the sentiment of every scene.
What remains fascinating about this classic is that, what was conceived of as a “Yankee” sensibility 100+ years ago still feels (disturbingly) relevant. The opera highlights American imperialism, disdain for other cultures and their traditions (only an American marriage is “real” to Pinkerton, and he ridicules Butterfly’s ancestor figurines), and the reluctance to take responsibility for the ramifications of impulsive cross-cultural dealings. And of course, there’s the macho, girl-in-every-port sailors’ mentality.
Some reputations are hard to shake.
- The San Diego Opera production of “Madama Butterfly” has two more performances: Friday, April 22, at 7 p.m. (tickets still available) and Sunday, April 24, at 2 p.m., in the Civic Theatre downtown.
- Limited tickets are available at 619-533-7000 or www.sdopera.org
- Running time: 2 hrs. 45 min.
Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at patlauner.com.