Seattle Opera's Classic "Madama Butterfly"
By Melinda Bargreen
Loud sniffs and audible sobs could be heard in the audience, before they were drowned out by the fervent shouts of “Brava!” at the conclusion of Seattle Opera’s “Madama Butterfly.” The applause in McCaw Hall had a larger echo in nearby KeyArena, where the company made history with its first-ever live simulcast before an audience who heard and saw this amazing production for free.
“We’re not the Sounders yet!” quipped Seattle Opera general director Speight Jenkins, who announced beforehand that nearly 8,000 would be attending the evening’s opening night performance. [The combined audience of McCaw Hall and the KeyArena was nearly that, upwards of 7,500.] The simulcast is Seattle Opera’s gift to the community, he added, with support from the Wallace Foundation, and the cooperation of the Seattle Symphony and Opera Players’ Organization and the Seattle Opera Chorus.
And what a gift! Almost unbearably moving, the performance by soprano Patricia Racette in the title role is one of the great landmarks of this company’s history. A veteran of nearly 100 performances as Cio-Cio-San, Racette owns this role in a way few singers can begin to approach. It’s not just that voice – big and supple and full of telling emotional nuance. It’s not just her command of geisha-style movement and the telling details of her acting. It is the total package, the whole portrayal, that ratchets up the emotional intensity on the stage and in the house, as Butterfly’s tragic story becomes heart-wrenchingly real.
On opening night, Racette’s voice started out with a vibrato wide enough to suggest advanced maturity, instead of Butterfly’s status as a teenager. The wobble was brought under control, however, and what followed was singing of spectacular variety, power, and artistic shading – singing whose every line was based on the creation of her character in all its multi-dimensional power. Flirtatious, optimistic, chastened, loving, despairing, and determined: Racette made all these facets of her character clear in a portrayal that was strikingly effective.
The rest of the cast was fully up to Racette’s standard: Stefano Secco’s gloriously rich and powerful Pinkerton, Sarah Larsen’s stalwart and empathetic Suzuki, and Brett Polegato’s resonant, conflicted Sharpless were all standouts. Doug Jones was far more than the usual caricature of the wily Goro; Michael Devlin was a terrifying Bonze. David Krohn (Yamadori) and Carissa Castaldo (an exquisitely pretty Kate Pinkerton) did well in supporting roles.
The minimalist set, borrowed from the Canadian Opera Company, offered some shoji screens and a lovely Japanese-painting backdrop, brilliantly lit by lighting designer Duane Schuler (effective projections, shadows, and some lurid red during Cio-Cio-San’s vigil and later on, when her thoughts turned toward suicide).
Peter Kazaras’ stage direction was a blend of the stylized and the naturalistic, with many telling details (Kate and Suzuki in earnest conversation, for example, while the final scene neared its denouement). The scenes with Cio-Cio-San’s little child, well played by Gabriella Mercado, were highly effective, and the touching moments in which Suzuki and her mistress deck the house with flowers and blossoms were particularly well done.
This writer’s only quibble with Kazaras’ staging is over his decision to keep Pinkerton offstage at the opera’s conclusion, as he sings his anguished “Butterfly! Butterfly!” unseen. This decision is understandable, in that it gives the whole stage to Cio-Cio-San’s tragic suicide. But it’s far more visually powerful to have Pinkerton rush onstage to confront not only the shocking sight of the newly-dead Cio-Cio-San, but also his first glimpse of his own little son. Pinkerton, in all his flaws, is the linchpin of this drama; his abandonment of Butterfly is the center of the opera, and his shock and horror at the ending underscores the audience’s own reaction.
The strong musical values of the cast were enhanced by the Seattle Opera Chorus (a tip of the hat to chorusmaster Beth Kirchhoff), and by the pliant, urgent conducting of Julian Kovatchev, a Bulgarian-born maestro with a nice eye for long melodic lines and a fine hand at extracting the utmost emotional firepower in the score.
It was a production made for Kleenex and waterproof mascara. With the KeyArena simulcast, this also was a chance for Seattle Opera to demonstrate the power of opera to a wider audience -- and this "Madama Butterfly" capitalized splendidly on that opportunity.