SFO’s ‘Butterfly’ soars

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By The Staff

Friday evening marked the beginning of another season at the Santa Fe Opera, with more than 2,000 people mingling in the rose-gold light of another spectacular sunset. Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” (1904), which opened the SFO’s first season and theater in 1957, and the subsequent new theaters in 1968 and 1998, now ties with “La Boheme” for most presented Puccini opera at Santa Fe, at least until next year, when “Boheme” inches ahead again. I’m delighted to say this new production completely lives up to the work’s profound history with the company and the greater opera world.

The set is spare and open to the back for the entire performance, which means when it pours and blows like it did Friday, the performers get as wet as the audience. Rotating near the downstage center of the gently raked stage is a large square platform with only the framework of a cube. For the first act, a blooming cherry branch overhangs a huge golden moon in the background, which changes to blood red as it sinks.  Paper panel doors are added, opened, closed and rearranged on the platform to evoke a love-ottage leased for 999 years, but patently temporary.

Butterfly Kelly Kaduce made her wedding procession entrance in a magnificent kimono of palest pink, with embroidered flowers climbing more than halfway up the skirt and enormous sleeves, and an obi of deep green and red brocade. Her singing was equally magnificent. Rich and full, soaring over the huge Puccini orchestra; then so simple and childlike you can almost believe she’s really only 15 years old.  Brava! She was emotionally compelling and vocally superb.  

A production aspect detracted slightly from her otherwise completely convincing performance: there seemed to be little to no effort put toward making her (or her maid Suzuki) look Japanese.  Indeed, in the second act, in rather dowdy turn-of-the-century Western garb of off-white ruffled blouse with high neck and long sleeves, wide black cummerbund over flaring ankle-length black skirt and hair cut above the shoulders, it was hard to remember this was “Butterfly.”

Similarly, Elizabeth DeShong’s Suzuki looked like Aunt Bea in a plain, dark kimono – the quintessential sympathetic matron caregiver – but one whose dark, effulgent voice filled the theater with her compassionate devotion.  Brava again, for a beautiful job in a crucial supporting role. And bravo to Brandon Jovanovich for his glorious, open singing in one of the most thankless lead roles in opera, the cad Pinkerton. His oblivious self-service and sense of entitlement, yet winning charm and seemingly sincere remorse, all rang true; and when he took his bow, we booed while clapping all the louder. I hope he took it as the compliment it was.

Baritone James Westman as Consul Sharpless cut a handsome and sympathetic figure in his white linen suit, but unfortunately could seldom be heard over the orchestra, or through the other singers. In a much brighter, imaginatively cut silk suit, Goro Keith Jameson’s much brighter tenor flashed and shone across the stage. Bass Harold Wilson was satisfyingly menacing as the furious Uncle Bonze, flying at Butterfly in a billowing, black figured floor-length robe.

Soaked and freezing, we stuck it out through Butterfly’s final heart-wrenching aria before beating a hasty retreat back to standing room to cheer. Opera buffs and novices alike, get tickets while you can to this wonderful production of one of the world’s most beloved operas and don’t forget blankets, rain ponchos and umbrellas.