It takes a superb performance to make a non-Puccini fan enjoy three hours of the endless melodies and over-the-top emotion that make up “Madama Butterfly,” but that’s what international soprano Patricia Racette brings to the Seattle Opera production of this work. She springs off a supportive cast and elegantly restrained visuals to deliver the all-out passionate acting she’s deservedly famous for.
If you’re not a Puccini lover, it can be torture sitting through one of his operas. And with a lesser singer in the title role of a young geisha who is tricked into marriage then abandoned by a U.S. naval officer, it’s even worse. This is an opera with nothing to hide behind: Cio-Cio-San, or “Madam Butterfly,” sings constantly from her Act I entrance through to her tragic final curtain. That’s three hours of teenage flirting, love, hope, angst and self-sacrifice, couched in classical music’s most over-the-top romantic style.
But Racette – making her Seattle Opera debut along with tenor Stefano Secco as the callous lover Pinkerton – shows exactly why she’s famous for this part, with a throbbing, edgy, Italian soprano and superlative acting from beginning to end. Racette may be nearing 50 years old, but she acts like the 15-year-old that Puccini wrote, showing us Butterfly’s emotional yo-yo of ecstasy and heartbreak about the relationship, her naive hope for Pinkerton’s return, and her fierce anger at those who try to show her the truth. In “Un Bel Di” we see not a soprano basking in the world’s most popular aria, but a woman whose faith in her unfaithful husband convinces even her dubious servant to see his white ship, his walking figure. Racette even gets the geisha gestures – shuffling on tiny feet, bowing out of awkward situations with impermeable grace. And by the final deathly curtain, she has the entire audience in silent, adoring thrall.
Of course, Butterfly needs a backdrop and supporters to fly so beautifully, and Racette gets both. Despite wooden acting, Secco carries Pinkerton’s wide range with brilliant ease, convincingly pompous and shallow. Brett Polegato is much more complex as Sharpless, the impotent U.S. consul who nevertheless is the only one who truly understands Butterfly’s cultural position, cut off from her family yet unwilling to lose face. Doug Jones is disappointingly facile (and vocally soft) as Goro, the broker who hooks up Butterfly and Pinkerton in the first place and who needs to be as slimy as Pinkerton is icy. But the hidden gem of the show was young artist Sarah Larsen as Butterfly’s loyal maid Suzuki: smart, succinct and with a sultry mezzo that belied her demure demeanor.
Making all these characters shine, however, was the production itself. In going for a restrained Canadian Opera set of beige hangings, bamboo poles, a plain raked floor with movable screens and vague mountain backdrop, director Peter Kazaras offered a beautiful Japanese minimalism over which the vocal emotions could shimmer, accompanied by sensitive lighting from Duane Schuler. The moment when Butterfly enters, transforming the grays and whites into gold, is revelatory; and the love duet lengthens twilight into a brilliantly-starred evening like a heavenly vision. Costumes (also by Canadian Opera designer Susan Benson) added subtle touches of orange and red to the convent grays, giving Butterfly her swirly kimono “wings.”
Underneath all this was immaculate playing from the opera orchestra, delicately balanced by conductor Julian Kovatchev.
For those who love Puccini, the rapturous applause for Racette at the end of last Saturday’s performance said it all. And for those who don’t, it’s a rare chance to see an opera character as professionally and passionately acted as they all should firstname.lastname@example.org 253-597-8568, blog.thenewstribune.com/arts