Friday, May 11, 2012

Butterfly's tragic tale of trust & betrayal

Seattle Opera photo by Elise Bakketun
The story is straightforward, as grand opera plots go: a naval officer deceives a poor young girl and pretend-marries her, gets her pregnant and leaves town. When she learns, three years later, that he has for-real married someone else, she turns the child over to his new wife and kills herself.

In Madama Butterfly, currently playing at Seattle Opera, this age-old tale of wayward love, of trust and betrayal, is set in Japan (a new and exotic land to early 20th century Europeans), but Puccini's music and the Giacosa-Illica libretto were written for Italian ears: over two hours of nonstop, romantic arias, duets and interludes swirling inexorably toward the Butterfly's inevitable, tragic ending.

The term "cad" may be old-fashioned, but Butterfly's lover, Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, is nothing less. Though he woos her well, in a magnificent love duet that ends Act One, he never considers her more than a plaything. Much is made of his "America Forever" sense of entitlement to "pluck the flowers on every shore" he visits. The US Consul, Sharpless, warns him about not to break Butterfly's "trusting heart," but Pinkerton has convinced himself that in Japan, "everything is flexible," even a marriage contract.

Poor Butterfly. When she enters with her bridal party, luminous beneath a golden parasol, she is "the happiest girl in Japan." She gives herself completely to Pinkerton, even though she's promptly renounced by her family. At the beginning of Act Two, abandoned for three years, she still waits for Pinkerton's ship to return. And here, at Madama Butterfly's midpoint, comes "Un Bel Di," the opera's most famous aria, the heroine's gut-wrenching resolve to tough it out, come what may. Alas, as we know all to well, It's all downhill from there.

When Pinkerton does return, he can't even face Butterfly. Too late, he realizes what a shit he's been. Too late, Butterfly acknowledges she's been deceived. "I knew it would end like this," clucks the Consul. (Last year, an American professor wrote a book, "Butterfly's Child"--renamed Benji-- that imagines the youngster growing up \on a farm in the Midwest after Pinkerton retires.) Stefano Secco, the tenor from Milan who sings Pinkerton in this production, says he knows he's done a good job when he gets booed at the curtain call.

But in the end, it's all about the soprano who sings Butterfly. Patricia Racette owns the role, taking us from a giddy teenager thrilled to be marrying an American in a Navy uniform to the sadder but wiser single mom who chooses suicide over dishonor. Racette has lived in Japan and knows firsthand the gestures and movements of a geisha; she has sung Butterfly almost 100 times, most recently at the Met in New York. Vocally, the part demands everything, while physically the Japanese geisha gestures must be precise. If there's an emotion to be manipulated, Racette knows how to wring the heartstrings.

The story, in fact, was originally adapted for the Broadway stage by the American playwright David Belasco; Puccini saw a production in London in 1900 and--though he understood not one word of English--was moved to tears. And, sure, there's a certain irony that in Seattle the American naval officer is sung by an Italian, the American consul by a Canadian, the two Japanese women by Americans, all led by a Bulgarian conductor. If you stood around until the world produced a perfect Japanese Butterfly, you'd still be waiting for the downbeat.

On the HD simulcast at Key Arena on opening night, it was a bit of a surprise to see beer vendors in the aisles before the music started, although there was no intrusive "Getcher programs, getcher peanuts, getcher sooshee!" thank goodness.Instead, the jaw-dropping immediacy of the performace itself. I found that the closeups of the singers made the story seem even more tragic, but my own sense of awe and terror wasn't readily shared. (That essay is here.) Onstage at McCaw, there seemed to be much greater warmth in the audience toward the performers, a greater connection with the artists, and a growing sense of excitement and foreboding that exploded in well-deserved applause at the final curtain.

Seattle Opera presents Madama Butterfly, at McCaw Hall. Performances May 11, 12, 16 & 19 at 7:30 PM; May 13 & 20 at 2 PM. Tickets from ($25 to $244) online at, or by calling the box office (206-389-7676) during business hours.

Above: Patricia Racette as Butterfly, Sefano Secco as Pinkerton.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Opera in HD: Ready for her closeup

Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio-San on the HD screen at Key Arena

 It's not the fervid excitement that used to precede a Sonics game at Key Arena, with vendors in the aisles: "Getcher programs, getcher co' beer, getcher sooshee!" (Not really, but you get the idea). Instead, there's a tranquil anticipation leading up to the first-ever simulcast of a local opera production.

No matter that it's actually happening, live, at McCaw Hall, barely 300 yards away, the premiere of Seattle Opera's Madama Butterfly. The HD screen at one end of the Key is enormous, 50 by 80 feet, dwarfing the evening's live presenters. Previews play: interviews with designers and directors. And, just like the movies, there's a cartoon, the iconic "What's Opera, Doc?" parody of classical Wagner stagings. Then Speight Jenkins steps to the microphone at McCaw and onto the screen, ten times larger than life, to say a few words of welcome.

"Lights!!" someone shouts from the balcony, where spotlights are still glaring. As conductor Julian Kovatchev mounts the podium (in a view from the orchestra pit that non-musicians will never see), the shouting becomes a chant, "Turn down the lights! Turn down the lights!" Just in time, the house lights dim, and the maestro gives the downbeat.

Movie directors have known for decades that closeups do wonders for drawing people into a story. ("We didn't need dialogue; we had faces.") and Madama Butterfly's Patricia Racette spends the next three hours reconfirming her status as the queen of opera in HD opera: She doesn't need to say it: she is big. It's the pictures that got small.

With remarkably few glitches (a split-screen effect in Act III that failed due to a wayward camera), the simulcast was better than the best seat I've ever had at McCaw. No opera glasses needed.

Director in control room.jpg
Frank Zamora at the HD console
Video director Frank Zamcona (known for the San Francisco Opera's successful "Opera at the Ballpark" series) uses his seven HD cameras to propel the story in ways that you can't see no matter where you sit, where you view the full stage no matter what. In Act I, for example, the camera catches Suzuki overhearing Pinkerton tell Sharpless that he's looking forward to the day he'll marry a "real American wife." No way that a Japanese servant girl like Suzuki could actually understand a word of English, but the cutaway (and Suzuki's arched eyebrow) tells the audience that she's already wary of Pinkerton.

The music continues without interruption. There are no recitatives, no spoken dialogue; everything is sung with dramatic immediacy. We see every twitch in Butterfly's composure. Patricia Racette isn't playing a part or singing a role, she's inhabiting her character with such conviction that we forget we're watching a performance. Even though the story is familiar, the outcome known to every opera-goer, we live Butterfly's anguish, and at the climax, when Butterfly surrenders her child and kills herself, thousands of sports fan gasped in horror.

At McCaw, as Racette took her bows, the audience was on its feet (you could hear them cheering wildly), yet the Key was muted, the crowd strangely silent. Applause, yes, but polite. Almost no one standing. Not because they weren't thrilled, in my view, but because they were numb. It's thrilling to see and hear opera live, and we've been conditioned to respond with applause and calls of bravo at live performances. The hybrid HD experience overwhelms our senses and seems to call for a new set of responses. When we were kids at the matinee, we'd cheer for the cavalry. HD is a different sort of adventure but we should allow ourselves to become kids again and cheer like crazy.

Frank Zamora photo by Jonathan Dean, Seattle Opera

(UPDATE of sorts: this isn't just a Seattle issue; according to the NY Times, it's an HD problem.