By Christopher Michaels
To even the casual opera aficionado, "Madama Butterfly," which visits the Civic Theatre from May 9 through 20, is a work that sparks immediate recognition.
A classic story of love and leaving set in early 20th century Japan, Giacomo Puccini's tragic work is a staple of the repertoire widely performed throughout the U.S. and worldwide.
This will be San Diego Opera's eighth turn at staging "Madama Butterfly," the first being in 1971 and most recently in 2003, and is the fifth and final opera of the company's 2009 season. For this showing, the company welcomes American soprano Patricia Racette as Cio-Cio-San and Uruguayan tenor Carlo Ventre as Pinkerton.
Puccini wrote several drafts of the opera, and it is the standard Paris 1907 version that will be performed here, says director Garnett Bruce, who last directed Verdi's "Aida" here last season.
The story of "Madama Butterfly," as the company describes it, finds the American naval officer Pinkerton marrying a Japanese geisha named Cio-Cio-San (who is also known as Butterfly). Pinkerton takes the relationship lightly despite the warnings of the American consul, Sharpless.
Pinkerton returns to America, and Butterfly gives birth to their child whom she names Trouble while she waits for her husband to return. When Pinkerton does return, he brings with him his American wife, and Cio-Cio-San must choose to live in disgrace or die with her honor intact.
"Madama Butterfly" debuted inauspiciously as a two-act opera in Milan in 1904, and Puccini reworked the piece over the next three years into three acts. Sometimes when the premier performance goes badly, then the opera over time becomes great, says Ventre, who was Radames in "Aida" and returns to San Diego as Pinkerton, which he describes as a mature part for a veteran performer.
He says it took him 13 years of performing the role to make the character his and make his mark in the role.
Gracing the stage opposite Ventre, Racette will perform her signature role as Cio-Cio-San, a part for which she has received wide acclaim in New York, Los Angeles and elsewhere.
San Diego operagoers had a chance to see her last in the Leos Janecek opera "Katya Kabanova" in 2004. "People might have seen 'Butterfly' in 2003, but they have not heard it with Patricia, who is the defining Cio-Cio San of this generation," said Edward Wilensky, a San Diego Opera spokesman.
Bruce notes that given "Madama Butterfly's" naval milieu, operagoers here may experience the production with an added degree of honesty, relating to the themes of military rank and conduct. And why else should San Diegans, who have the option of so many other activities, choose to spend time at the opera?
"There is no other live art form like opera," Racette said. "Stagecraft, costumes, music are unmatched."
Bruce describes the distinctive opportunity the art offers, in this age of personal MP3 players and videos, as a shared community experience to hear "the human voice, in context unamplified" on a 50-foot stage. Puccini, he says, is masterful at conveying humanity through his characters, and "Madama Butterfly" has the capacity to fully engage the audience.
"We want to see our own stories (on stage)," Racette said. "It's cathartic."
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