Review: A Transcendent “Madama Butterfly”, San Francisco Opera, November 6, 2016

The San Francisco Opera revived the Jun Kaneko production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” for Armenian soprano Lianna Haroutounian.

[Below: Goro (Julius Ahn, front left, in silhouette) and Lieutenant Pinkerton (Vincenzo Costanzo, front, right in blue tunic) observe the bridal procession in Jun Kaneko’s production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Lianna Haroutounian’s Cio-Cio-San

Lianna Haroutounian possesses a spinto voice of  power and vocal control with the ability to convey a range of emotions convincingly through vocal expressiveness and acting ability. These requisites are useful for any opera performance, but are especially so for the role of Cio-Cio-San, Madame Butterfly, who is the central figure in the entire opera.

Haroutounian proved to be convincing in the role, diplaying both the character’s vulnerability and her inner strength.

Haroutounian’s 2014 San Francisco Opera debut created a sensation [Review: Lianna Haroutounian Triumphs as Tosca – San Francisco Opera, October 23, 2014.] Her reception as Cio-Cio-San was equally warm, if not even more so than her Tosca, with a standing audience ovation greeting her as she stepped out for a solo curtain call at opera’s end.

[Below: Lianna Haroutounian as Cio-Cio San, Madama Butterfly; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Vincenzo Costanzo’s Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton

The character who inspires Butterfly’s devoted love, and whose careless disregard of that devotion destroys her, is Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton. In this production the role is performed by Italian tenor Vincenzo Costanzo in his American operatic debut.

[Below: Lieutenant Pinkerton (Vincenzo Costanzo, left) gets to know Cio-Cio San (Lianna Haroutounian, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Costanzo brought a lyrical quality that enriched the erotic melodies of the love duet that ends the first act. His Pinkerton has a swagger appropriate to a character who gives no consideration to the long-term consequences of his actions.

In what now seems a universal reaction of American audiences, Pinkertons these days are good-naturedly booed at the opera’s final curtain calls. Costanzo took the San Francisco audience’s lusty reaction to the flawed character in good spirits. Once that audience ritual was completed, he received a warm and enthusiastic ovation.

[Below: Vincenzo Costanzo as Lieutenant Pinkerton; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Zanda Svede’s Suzuki, Anthony Clark Evans’ Sharpless and Other Cast Members

The other members of the cast gave credible performances.

Latvian mezzo-soprano Zanda Svede sounded in good voice, despite an annoucement that she was suffering from a cold. Svede’s Suzuki was an effective actress at every moment (whether silent or singing), always displaying a protectiveness and concern for Cio-Cio-San’s well-being.

[Below: Cio-Cio-San (Lianna Haroutounian, left) tries to console Suzuki (Zanda Svede, right); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


Kentucky lyric baritone Anthony Clark Evans was an engaging Sharpless. South Korean tenor Julius Ahn was the slippery “marriage broker”, Goro, whose sordid involvement in promoting Pinkerton’s “marriage” is even more culpable than the clueless Pinkerton. (Perhaps there should be a ritual booing for the Goro at curtain calls as well.)

California baritone Edward Nelson was effective as the Cio-Cio-San’s rich suitor Yamadori. California soprano Julie Adams was a sympathetic Kate Pinkerton. Ayla Cashman, playing Sorrow, the offspring of Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton, won the audience’s hearts. Maestro Yves Abel conducted.

[Below: Cio-Cio-San (Lianna Haroutounian, right) introduces a shocked Consul Sharpless (Anthony Clark Evans, left) to her son, Sorrow (Ayla Cashman); edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


In luxury casting, Ohio bass Raymond Aceto, in San Francisco for the role of Ramfis in Verdi’s “Aida”, assumed with distinction the brief but difficult role of the angry religious leader, the Bonze. (Morris Robinson, one of Aceto’s basso colleagues, calls the role of Bonze “three minutes of Hell, that is pitched very high and has to be loud and ferocious”). San Francisco Opera has been fortunate to have both Aceto and Robinson sing this part.

Thoughts on “Madama Butterfly” at the War Memorial Opera House

This is the tenth review I’ve posted on this website of a performance of “Madama Butterfly”, the fifth at the War Memorial Opera House. This included a previous review of the Jun Kaneko co-production of the the San Francisco and Omaha Operas [see House of Puccini: Jun Kaneko’s Enchanting “Madama Butterfly” Soars at War Memorial – San Francisco Opera, June 15, 2014.]

I also reviewed of the San Francisco Opera’s other Kaneko production [Review: The Jun Kaneko “Magic Flute” Revived – San Francisco Opera, October 20, 2015], which extends the Kaneko “brand” of brightly colored costumes and fantasy visual effects.

s[Below: the silhouettes of Cio-Cio-San (Lianna Haroutounian, behind screen, left) and Suzuki (Zanda Svede, behind screen right) are seen preparing for the bridal night as Lieutenant Pinkerton (Vincenzo Costanzo, seated in front of screen) awaits; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]


I believe strongly that Puccini operas are, as a whole, an excellent introduction to opera, and are especially effective in the War Memorial Opera House, whose beautiful architectural features and excellent acoustics and sight lines enhance the operatic experience.

Puccini, although firmly rooted in the operatic traditions of Italian Romanticism, is also an heir to Wagner, in that much of the opera’s drama takes place in the orchestration. The War Memorial Opera House, with its open orchestra pit, is perfectly designed for the symphonic sweep of Puccini’s extraordinary melodic style.

The San Francisco Opera, in the mid-20th century made the decision to create its own opera orchestra, rather than continuing its former practice of building its orchestra around a combination of San Francisco Symphony members and free-lance musicians.  Now decades later, the San Francisco Opera Orchestra ranks among the greatest opera orchestras in the world.

Veteran opera-goers, who have seen “Madama Butterfly” performed many times sometimes pass on the opportunity to see it yet another time. Yet, it is one of the great masterpieces of opera and of musical drama. I, for one, have never attended a “Butterfly” performance in which its dramatic and musical sweep failed to impress me anew.


I strongly recommend this opera, and Lianna Haroutounian’s performance, for both the veteran opera-goer and the newcomer to opera. I suggest those opera-goers who haven’t attended a performance of the work for a while, consider securing a ticket to one of the remaining performances of this revival.