Monday, December 03, 2007

Theatrical Alchemy

The San Francisco Opera's production of "Madama Butterfly," originally conceived by the British director Ron Daniels, was created in the mid-90s when the company had to vacate the opera house for retrofitting, and they put on a season at Bill Graham, the Orpheum, and the Golden Gate Theatre, which was used for a four-cast rotating Broadway style version of "Madama Butterfly." (Think Baz Luhrmann's Broadway "La Boheme," but it was much simpler.)

The production is wide and shallow (just like the Golden Gate Theatre stage), and totally serviceable, but it's been used so many times that everyone is sick of it. So when there was an announcement that there would be a "reprise" production of "Madama Butterfly" from last year with the same diva, Patricia Racette, nobody expected anything particularly special.

Theatre has its own alchemy, however, and the performance at the ungodly operatic hour of noon last Saturday was one of the most extraordinary events in my 30 years of opera attendance at the house. The possible contributing elements are the following: 1. This was Runnicles' last opera as music director this fall, and he's filled with emotion; 2. Racette is one of the greatest sopranos in the world, completely in her prime, but she doesn't get the attention of somebody like Renee Fleming which is sort of ridiculous, so she has something to prove; 3. Brandon Jovanovich as Pinkerton has sung in Walnut Creek and San Jose, so making a debut at the Big House in the Big City had to be important for him and he not only came through, but his offstage "Butterfly's" at the end of the opera, filled with pain, was basically the last straw for everyone. I wanted to wipe the tears floating down my face and tickling the beard which was underneath a Kabuki black veil, but I remained a professional and didn't move.

In my first year as a supernumerary in the early 1990s, I was the last person picked to be a Cursed Slave in an "Elektra" production directed by Andrei Serban starring the Welsh soprano Gwyneth Jones, who had been singing with a monster vibrato for about ten years in San Francisco before showing up late in her career to sing the titular role with an absolute laser beam of an instrument, which she used to legendary effect for the next ten years. The young conductor at the time was a baby-faced Christine Thielemann, who's about to take over Bayreuth. The Clothilde was Nadine Secunde, Aegesthis was James King, and Klytemnestra was Helga Dernesch. The cursed slaves were invited to hang out on stage for the curtain calls and when Gwyneth arrived, the opera house let loose with an ovation and a rush of energy I haven't experienced again until Saturday, when the Fifth Maidservant of "Elektra" (Patricia Racette) came back in her prime and received a similar ovation as Butterfly. It was, as they say, awesome. And just to confirm that I'm not being completely subjective, check out Kosman by clicking here and Janos Gereben by clicking here.


Lisa Hirsch said...

You know, I thought Racette was good, not great, in her first bunch of starring appearances here, in Luisa Miller, Hoffman, William Tell, etc. Something happened between, say, Traviata and Turandot, around 2000 or 2001. I caught her in Oct. 2001 at the Met, and wound up crying over her Mimi, talk about surprises. Everything she's done since then has been golden.

About Saturday - it was extraordinary. For once, they didn't undercast Pinkerton and Sharpless - I mean, I cannot remember the names of the last few Pinkertons, let alone how they sang. Loved Powell and Jovanovich; they were perfect. And the direction was great, which Kosman calls out in some specifics I noticed as well.

The Opera Tattler said...

Give me Racette over Fleming any day.

Lisa Hirsch said...

I'm with you on that.

Nancy Ewart said...

Saturday was extraordinary; Robert and Mac, my two opera and music loving friends are usually very critical but they both were very misty eyed. I was sobbing out loud but I'm an woman and older (60+ etc) so it was OK. We had to retire to Absinthe for a restorative glass or two of cheer to recover. IMHO, Fleming, while good, has never rocked my boat.

mona perdue said...

Madama Butterfly will never be the same for us after the SF broadcast. The buckled taped-on wigs, fake flowers, sweaty clothing, faces past prime for close-ups. scratched stage, and overdone make-up took away the magic. Yes, the voices were beautiful and opera is all about the music. But we were distracted and dismayed by being too close.
An endless cycle of commercials before Act 1 and the slight 10 minute intermission without interesting interviews and back-stage excitement finished it off.