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Subject: High-Flying Adored `Butterfly'
From: "Janos G." <[log in to unmask]>
Reply-To:Janos G.
Date:Sun, 9 Jun 2002 18:48:35 -0700

text/plain (100 lines)

Who knew? Ho-hum, you go to yet another "Madama Butterfly," after a half
century of sampling Puccini's opera, on four continents. . . and you come
out wiping your eyes.

Tears flowed free and with pleasure in the packed War Memorial this
afternoon, an audience of 3,000 falling under the spell of the performance
so much that there was a hush in the huge auditorium most of the time.

"Butterfly" is one of the finest, most effective soap operas with music ~V
when it works. It did, splendidly today, covering the San Francisco Opera
with glory. Where does the credit belong? It would be a great pleasure to be
able to do this after every opera ~V  instead of "on the one hand. . . and on
the other" ~V but the proper review this time is the simple recitation of an
honor list.

First among equals is the one with the toughest job. To sing the title role,
you need to portray a 15-year-old Japanese girl, with the voice of a
Br?nnhilda and the acting ability to break hearts for three hours at a
stretch. Miriam Gauci today came close to that impossible ideal even without
meeting any of the specifics.

The Maltese soprano is a well-preserved 45, she is a decent actress, and has
a fine, wonderfully musical voice, but a Birgit Nilsson she ain't. She
succeeded today magnificently by marshalling her resources, and then
suffusing the performance with focus, determination and passion ~V but not
showing the effort. Vocally and theatrically, she WAS Butterfly, especially
as the older (if not wiser) 18-year-old in the second act.

I don't know when I saw another Butterfly standing immobile, ramrod upright
through the entire Humming Chorus and the long orchestral interlude, really
waiting for Pinkerton, not taking the load off or even ~V as it happens
frequently ~V resting off-stage.

I do know that I can count on one hand instances of the a similar "Un bel'
di" I heard live. Even the best singers just "perform the aria," what else
can you do? Gauci didn't.

She sang the music, spoke the words, made you hear and understand the old
chestnut to which your ears have shut down long ago. She had a great partner
in Donald Runnicles, who conducted the orchestra in a shimmering,
transparent performance, even allowing the timpani evoke the "great salute"
when the long-awaited white ship will enter the port. This was no soap: it
reminded the listener to Tristan's delirium over the ship he is waiting for,
Italian romanticism meeting German excess in a place free of ethnicity and

Runnicles and the orchestra (concertmaster Kay Star spectacularly so) were
quite wonderful, although not reaching the standard established in 1995 when
Runnicles and Charles Mackerras took turns to conduct orchestral
performances that mandated attendance at every show.

This time, the beginning of Act I was a bit unsettled, nervous; some of the
climaxes were loud instead of powerful. And yet, such was the over-all
excellence of this performance that in the nature of this art form of the
gestalt, 2002 is to be treasured even above those memorable events seven
years ago.

This is the second revival of the 1997 Ron Daniels-Michael Yeargan
production, designed for the Golden Gate Theater during the War Memorial
reconstruction. It's one of the cleanest, most effective, most beautiful
physical productions around, beginning with the stunning opening scene of
the red-lined shutters opening into a black-and-white world, kabuki-style
masked stagehands moving the action along, helping to avoid anything
extraneous, attention-diverting. (There were some loud cracks produced by
the wooden floor during Act I, the sound so strong that if the Opera
administration didn't state flatly that there is no amplification, a
suspicious mind would have focused on the floor mikes ~V used, of course,
only for other purposes.)

The staging worked especially because of the work of the entire cast. Zoran
Todorovich, for example, is a fine tenor, but it was more important in this
ensemble performance that he presented a believable Pinkerton, both in his
cad-hood at the beginning (nothing exaggerated or ridiculous), and in his
realization and regret at the end.

This is no small accomplishment: the libretto stinks when it comes to
providing any sense of reality as the horny naval officer becomes somebody
with feelings ~V all in a couple of minutes and quite without any decent
lines. Todorovich succeeded.

The honor role is without exceptions: Zheng Cao's Suzuki is a treasure, she
matched and supported Gauci's intensity. David Okerlund gave a young
singer's mature, elegant portrayal of Sharpless, another tough "character
without character," and the big man with the big voice even reined in his
powerful instrument in order to be a valid member of the ensemble.

Were it not for the exciting result of this production, it would have been a
pity to waste the important young talent of Kyu Won Han and Greta Feeney on
the two-line roles of Yamadori and Kate Pinkerton. In the event, it was
right and proper that everything enhanced the performance, even in the
smallest roles.

Will lightening strike again? Find out on any or all of additional
performance dates: June 13, 15, 20, 23, 28, July 2 and 5.

Janos Gereben/SF
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