As a stunning curtain, decorated with modernistic kimonos, rises on an equally striking set, all light and platforms in primary colors, it seems that the new San Francisco production of “Madame Butterfly” is going to be about Jun Kaneko’s production design. And, indeed, the artist, who did the colorful costumes and sets for 2012’s “Magic Flute,” has created some vivid pictures for the eye here, striking only one possible wrong note with a series of distracting and extraneous geometrics during the “Humming Chorus.” I would rather concentrate on the music.
Because the music is what it’s all about and this production, starring Patricia Racette — who seems to own this role — as the title character and the sensational American tenor Brian Jagde as Pinkerton, the faithless naval officer who loves her and leaves her, delivers the goods. Elizabeth DeShong makes the most of the secondary part of Butterfly’s maid (actually so commanding that I paid attention to Suzuki for the first time in the many that I have seen this work). Brian Mulligan turns in a serviceable, if slightly stiff, performance as the American consul, and Julius Ahn adds a note of levity as the marriage broker Goro.
But it is the lovers who anchor the fateful ship that sails into Nagasaki Harbor around the time when Japan opened its doors to the West. At first Racette, who has sung Butterfly in Barcelona, Munich, Australia, the Metropolitan and Lyric Opera of Chicago, as well as previously in San Francisco, seemed too old for the 15-year-old geisha and child-bride, Cio-Cio San. But, by the riveting last act, when the betrayed and abandoned girl takes her own life, age is no longer an issue. It’s all about the voice and acting, and Racette has all the bases covered.
But you sort of expect that. Jagde is a revelation. Good tenors are hard to come by and, with his strong, true voice and good looks, this one looks to have a major career ahead of him. The magical duet that ends the first act was a revelation, the voices soaring and blending in what is as much a depiction of the act of love to come as Wagner’s famed similar scene in “Tristan.” But, can the boy act? Well, he manages to make Pinkerton seem both shallow and sincere at the same time. Quite a feat.
Leslie Swackhamer has directed with an eye to Japanese tradition — tiny mincing steps for the women and limited use of “kokens,” those black-clad stagehands who pass the teacups, hand out the baskets of cherry blossoms and, most importantly, give Butterfly her father’s sword, with which she will end her shame and sorrow.
Nicola Luisotti, who estimates having helmed more than 70 productions of this work, brought that experience and expertise to the lush orchestral passages, and the San Francisco Opera Chorus sang gloriously. It may be the striking costume and set design that you remember, but this “Butterfly” actually flies on the wings of song.