Chad Newsome is now a bonafide opera aficionado. As the lights came up for the intermission of tonight's opening of SF Opera's Madama Butterfly he looked at me before I said a word (I was trying to not be a bad influence for once and was holding back my opinion and as well as my nose) and said "Should we just leave?"
I replied, "But I've already recently left a performance at intermission (Scapin) and I can't in good conscience write my post about this if we leave- there are two more acts to go." So we stayed and suffered through what has to be one of the worst operatic experiences in recent memory. How bad was it? Ten minutes in I was trying to recall the word Alex Ross used for his New Yorker review of last year's Tosca at the Met. Then it came to me- FIASCO. I thought that to be a bit much to describe what we just witnessed, but DISASTER would be a fair word to use without resorting to hyperbole. This mess ranks with the Macbeth of 2007, the Joan of Arc of 2006, the Otello of 2002 and the 1999's Tristan and Isolde for being the worst thing I've seen and heard on the stage of the War Memorial Opera House. I'm not even sure where to begin this catalogue of crimes against Puccini and the people who paid good money to see one his best works.
Obviously there were a lot of people attending an opera tonight for the first or second time- how else to account for the standing ovation it received at the end? It must have been because people could finally stand up after a dreadfully long second act and figured they just couldn't stand there and not applaud- how would that look to the person in the next box?. Perhaps it's just the shallowness of the Tuesday night audience, aka known as "Society.". [Note: Lisa has correctly reminded me it's always done in the two act version here in SF- it's just never felt so long before- so I have altered and removed some comments regarding the length of Act II- which does make the ovation even more puzzling! - JM].
Conductor Nicola Luisotti, supposedly an expert in this repertoire, led an uneven, flaccid orchestra that seemed immune or blind to his flurried arm movements during a failed attempt to pump some life into this horse that hit the stage dead on arrival. Entire sections of the score were barely heard, tempos were as weak and uneven as the arguments of a Meg Whitman campaign ad, only to be made up by ridiculous excesses in volume by the percussion section as if to say "if we play it loud they'll think we mean it!" After arriving in San Francisco Luisotti took awhile to impress me, finally doing so in last season's Salome and the summer's Fanciulla, but after this I'm afraid we are back to square one and all your best efforts are now undone maestro.
I'm sure Svetla Vassileva has had triumphs in other roles, but Butterfly is not going to be one them, at least judging by tonight's example. Off-key, screechy and often looking lost, from the moment she opened her mouth the evening appeared doomed. Even "Un Bel Di," one of the most famous arias ever written, barely made an impression and garnered no applause, no doubt aided in this massacre by a complete absence of control and rhythm by the orchestra. It came from nowhere and disappeared into a void.
Stefano Secco's Pinkerton not only could barely be heard for most of the evening, but it's hard to believe he's Italian. His minimal stage presence, coupled with an ill-defined conception of the role, led to the most milquetoast Pinkerton I've ever seen.
Daveda Karanas' Suzuki made me wonder what Catherine Cook is so busy doing that we couldn't bring her back. I know she lives around her- I've seen her having breakfast at Stacks. Need I say more?
Even the always reliable and usually easy on the ears Quinn Kelsey had a difficult go of it as Sharpless.
Thomas Glenn's Goro was just a casting mistake. Glenn is a fine young singer who has delivered some memorable performances from that stage but not tonight. Not likely to be fixed by the next performance either.
Austin Knees was the only one onstage who fared well as Prince Yamadori, which is the opera's most forgettable role. Where does the pain end?
Certainly not with the set, which finally replaced the one SFO has been using since the Ford administration. Looking like a pimped-out version of Trader Sam's done Japanese style, it offered nothing new that was an improvement over the raggedy one that's been retired, though I did like the ninja stagehands who came out to move the thing in circles which proved to be nothing more than busywork to make it look like something was actually happening onstage when in fact there wasn't.
And what of the boats? Really- what was that nonsense all about? Do you remember at the end of the brilliant Katya Kabanova a few year back that Hazmat team that came onstage at the end and disrupted what until that point had been something close to perfection? Well, this Butterfly never came close to that Katya on any level, but those damn stagehands walking around with the boats made about as much sense as that Hazmat crew.
Jose Maria Condemi, Clarke Dunham and Harold Prince- please, don't come around here no more. You have no interesting ideas, nothing to say, and just sucked away three hours of my life with one of the most banal, unimaginative productions I've ever had to endure.
And for all you biddies seated in rows R through T, right side orchestra, near the far right aisle, shut the fuck up, would you please?
A complete failure- trade in your tickets folks. Don't say you weren't warned.
A side note to Heidi Melton- you looked really hot tonight.