Opera Review: MADAME BUTTERFLY (SF Opera)

Post image for Opera Review: MADAME BUTTERFLY (SF Opera)

by Tony Frankel on June 28, 2023

in Music,Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


It’s 1904. US naval officer Lt. Pinkerton (Moisés Salazar) is seeing the world in the name of war and pleasure. When ashore in Nagasaki, Japan, he seeks the best and fairest woman and is offered Cio-Cio-San (Karah Son). Transfixed by her exotic beauty, Pinkerton marries her on sight. She is enthralled by his American ways and promise of a modern life in America, and falls wholeheartedly in love with him. However the dastardly Pinkerton is keenly anticipating the future when he will marry “a real wife, a wife from America.” In contrast to Cio-Cio-San’s devotion to her American husband, is Pinkerton’s callous commitment to his Japanese wife. He first discusses her like a piece of property with the American consul Sharpless (Lucas Meachem) and the matchmaker Goro (Julius Ahn). Then he abandons her for three years, only to return with an American wife to reclaim Trouble (Viva Young Maguire), the son he had with Cio-Cio-San,

Lucas Meachem as Sharpless

Although this was not my first time seeing Madam Butterfly, it was my first time seeing it so vividly realized. In a new co-production at San Francisco Opera, silent prologues and an epilogue have been added courtesy of director Amon Miyamoto, in which an elder dying Pinkerton (Evan Miles O’Hare) — in the style of Les Misérables — gives a letter to his now-grown son Trouble. The letter is Pinkerton’s history, but he is also no doubt seeking absolution for abandoning the boy’s mother. As Pinkerton’s American wife Kate (Mikayla Sager) and Cio-Cio San’s erstwhile maid Suzuki (Hyona Kim) look on, the adult Trouble (John Charles Quimpo) imagines the incidents in his head, and the opera becomes a sort of memory play as the adult Trouble wanders in and around Pinkerton’s narrative (Bartek Macias’ projections of sentences melting together is stunning).

Hyona Kim as Suzuki, John Charles Quimpo as Adult Trouble,
Evan Miles O'Hare as Elder Pinkerton

With gigantic scrims gracefully flowing about the stage, Boris Kudlička‘s sets become both minimalist and wonderfully detailed at the same time, especially the home Pinkerton leased. With this context, the fact that a fifteen-year-old geisha devotes her life to a perfidious man becomes even more of a cultural aberration in our eyes, while the tragic tale of a teenage woman desperate to escape her bad luck situations becomes more relatable. Miyamoto manages to make a disturbing story almost sublime. And that is no small achievement.

Karah Son as Cio-Cio-San with Chorus

With a well-researched libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly (1904) is another one of those incredibly popular operas, like Mozart’s Don Giovanni, that is rendered increasingly difficult and problematic by the passage of time. Cio-Cio-San, the titular Madame Butterfly, has often been seen as a strong, independent, even heroic, woman. And in some respects she is. But Cio-Cio-San is also a victim, both of a bigamist husband, and of a law that recognizes the rights of fathers over those of mothers. Madame Butterfly’s suicidal ending remains tragic, despite the sheen of honor provided by the dagger of Cio-Cio-San’s samurai father.

Karah Son as Cio-Cio-San

In her SFO debut, South Korean soprano Karah Son has the acting and vocal skills to make Cio-Cio-San an admirable and magnetic heroine, as she has proved many times before (I believe she has done the role over 300 times). The beautiful Ms. Son endows her role with both youthfulness and maturity as her glorious soprano fills the War Memorial Opera House. And it is that magisterial artistry that keeps audiences rapt throughout the long second half, from her gorgeously sung aria “Un bel di vedremo” to the tender farewell to her mother (Silvie Jensen).

Jongwon Han as The Bonze, Karah Son, John Charles Quimpo as Adult Trouble

Other notable performances include the stately Lucas Meachem as Sharpless, Julius Ahn as the slimy, slippery Goro; and strong bass-baritone Jongwon Han as Butterfly’s Uncle Bonze, a priest in traditional garb (make-up by Jeanna Parham, costumes by Kenzō Takada). Current SFO Adler Fellow Moisés Salazar was due to perform Pinkerton at the July 1 performance, but the usual Pinkerton Michael Fabiano took ill, so the well-rehearsed Salazar, sounding amazing on the high notes and soft on the low notes, was able to cover last night, June 27. And his high tenor was truly glorious. Sadly, being surrounded by amazingly well-cast performers, the Mexican-American tenor — a bit wooden — simply seemed miscast, being corpulant to the point of distraction. It may sound un-PC to say, but even opera audiences are becoming accustomed to actors who are not just cast for voice but for their physical appropriateness to the role. The terrific Kidon Choi, who  played Butterfly’s wealthy suitor Prince Yamadori, was also heavyset, but it suited the role in a dominating Henry VIII way.

Kidon Choi as Prince Yamadori, Julius Ahn as Goro, and Karah Son as Cio-Cio-San

Eun Sun Kim conducted the SFO Orchestra with vim and vigor, driving the score along energetically, despite a plot that spans years in which little happens. But for me, a lot happened at SFO’s Madame Butterfly. This rethinking brings home the story, while delivering smashing vocals. And the alluring Ms. Son is a Butterfly who soars.

Viva Young Maguire as Trouble, Karah Son, and Hyona Kim as Suzuki

photos by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The Wedding Scene

Madame Butterfly
San Francisco Opera
a co-production with Semperoper Dresden Opera, The Tokyo Nikikai Opera Foundation and the Royal Danish Opera
ends on July 1, 2023
for tickets, visit SFO

Leave a Comment