If you hadn’t noticed, “The operas of Strauss and Puccini are false through and through.” This willfully intemperate statement appeared in Joseph Kerman’s must-read Opera as Drama, first published just a year before John Crosby inaugurated the Santa Fe Opera in 1957 with Madame Butterfly. That opening season also included Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. Proof positive that from year one the SFO has promoted the fallacious?
Or, more likely, it proves that opera writers might be seriously fallible beings. Plenty of anti-Puccini snobs still abound, but few showed up for the SFO’s impulsive, insightful Madama Butterfly on a wet opening night Friday, July 2. The new production took some getting used to (and its last minutes competed with the raging elements for audibility), but Kerman’s falseness factor? Invisible.
Much of the credit belongs to conductor Antony Walker, making his company debut with a lush reading of Puccini’s score, more persuasive than any Butterfly Santa Fe has heard to date. Opening night glitches, yes: balance problems now and then, sloppy woodwinds in the second act interlude. But for richness, attention to detail and deep understanding of the score, Walker and his orchestra just did the right thing.
But what’s a pit band without a Butterfly? Soprano Kelly Kaduce may have seemed typecast as The Asian Heroine at past SFO premieres: Actress/ZiZheng in 2003’s Madame Mao and Princess Lan in 2007’s Tea: A Mirror of Soul. Her Cio-Cio-San demolishes stereotypes. This is no conventional Butterfly-as-victim, but a woman of consequence. A graceful stage figure, vocally transparent and secure throughout her range, Kaduce makes her first-act love duet with Pinkerton seem an ecstatic dream.
Transformed by sorrow in the second act, darker-voiced, she turns “Un bel di” into a beautifully controlled outcry of pain and passionate longing. Her despair at opera’s end converts to a noble stillness. This is a Cio-Cio-San to admire and respect, not pity, as finally, even the callow, horrified Pinkerton understands.
Brandon Jovanovich undertakes the Pinkerton role with high-volume bravado and little in the way of subtlety. After all, he’s merely Pinkerton, one of opera’s “furtive, fleeting heroes” (Catherine Clément’s words). Only in Puccini’s anti-dramatic, tacked-on aria, “Addio, fiorito asil,” does Jovanovich show humanity.
A major asset to the production, Elizabeth DeShong makes a splendid Suzuki, rich-voiced and eloquent. James Westman is an underpowered Sharpless, and Keith Jameson, always reliable, is the slimy Goro.
This is not an eye-splitting Butterfly in the manner, say, of Rouben Ter-Arutunian’s delectable stage-picture here in 1968, nor Anthony Minghella’s flashy show at the Met. Lovely to look at, it’s not. Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton’s cramped love nest shows the latter to be a cheapskate. Western intrusions in the form of ugly telegraph poles help to make the second act an exercise in Asian verismo.
Director Lee Blakeley, set designer Jean-Marc Puissant and costume designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel, with the help of Rick Fisher’s lighting scheme, visualize a Japan that’s less a romantic Orientalist’s dream than a rather drab place where cultural ways are headed West. No princely robes for Yamadori: He’s in a pukka sahib’s linen suit and pith helmet.
No kimono for the second act Butterfly, either. Now she’s in white blouse and schoolmarm’s skirt, her hair bobbed and her house penuriously equipped with a crucifix and the inevitable stars and stripes. The Flower Duet? Sorry, not a cherry blossom in sight—only Yamadori’s pretentious bouquet ripped to pieces.
On a visual level, SFO’s staging may seem underdone. But this new Butterfly convinces on its own terms. Walker, Kaduce and supporting artists are all on the same insightful wavelength. Goodbye to that conventional, floating world of prettiness and kitschy exoticism. Hello, “real” world of pain and sacrifice. Puccini, forget Kerman. In this show, the SFO tries to tell the truth.