Madama Butterfly – Svetla Vassileva Superstars in a Superstar Production

When I go to a performance of Verdi’s La Traviata or Puccini’s La Boheme a small child-like part of me hopes, “Maybe this time will be different.”  Right up until she takes her final breath I wish for Violetta or Mimi to recover.  It wouldn’t take much, you know.  A newly-discovered drug – a doctor’s admission of a faulty diagnosis.

I don’t suppose a director would ever dare to make that small change in the final scene – and if one did, it would be roundly boo-ed by the entire opera-loving audience (including the OperaNut).  But think of the added tension starting with the overture if you knew that there was even one chance in a million that the opera would end happily!

Final Scene of Madama Butterfly; Cio-Cio-San (Svetla Vassileva)

Not so with Madama Butterfly.  The final grisly scene is inevitable in Puccini’s tightly written opera.  To change the ending, one would have change the beginning and replace that SOB Pinkerton by a totally different person – and then instead of having a brilliant opera you have a sappy love story.  No way.

One view of Pinkerton's house in Act II

That thought is about Butterfly in general.  But how do I write about the particular San Francisco Opera performance of Butterfly that I saw last night, October 20, 2010?  I can’t count the number of different productions I’ve seen of this opera.  The opera itself is so perfect that I have never seen a performance I didn’t enjoy.  But I have never ever seen a performance that moved me as much as this one.

Cio-Cio-San demonstrates a geisha gesture

I don’t know or care how old Svetla Vassileva is nor how worldly and experienced she may be in real life – the person I saw on that stage was 15 years old, nave, and totally in love with a skunk.  Seat R-2 in the audience is too far from the stage to see her facial expression, but I didn’t need to; her body language said it all.  When she is first introduced to Pinkerton in Act I she is suitably shy, but at the same time she is self-assured.  Her trade is pleasing men in word, in gesture, and in deed; and she knows she is good at her trade.

Cio-Cio-San cuddles up to Pinkerton (Stefano Secco)

Later, when she and Pinkerton are officially married and finally alone, she is obvious in showing her love and devotion to her new husband.

Cio-Cio-San and Suzuki (Daveda Karanas) scatter flower petals

In Act II she shows her unrestrained joy when she sights Pinkerton’s ship in the harbor by flinging flower petals about with gay abandon.

Cio-Cio-San is impatient with the proposal of Prince Yamadori (Austin Kness); Suzuki, Goro (Thomas Glenn), and Sharpless (Quinn Kelsey) look on.

Later she conveys an impression of barely concealed impatience, while listening to the pompous would-be suitor Yamadori.

Cio-Cio-San receives the bad news

Perhaps her finest and most poignant acting was near the end of the opera when she was with Kate and Sharpless and was finally forced to accept the truth.  She stands there, erect and with dignity but internally reeling with the successive blows:  .  .  .  .  Pinkerton does not love her .  .  .  .  Kate is his “real wife”  .  .  .  .  They want to take away her son.  .  .  .  .  She maintains her pose and her poise until the two of them are gone.  And then she collapses so suddenly and completely that I wanted to call 911.

Cio-Cio-San hugs her child (Rebecca Chen)

From then on the tension grew and grew.  And so did the lump in my throat and the teardrop in my eye.  She gives her little boy “Sorrow” a hug and bids Suzuki take him out to play – “and you go with him.”  She takes out the sacred knife which had been sent to her father by the Mikado with orders to use it.

Cio-Cio-San reads the inscription on the Hari-Kari knife

She reads aloud the words inscribed on it: “It is better to die with honor than to live without it.”  She grips it with both hands and raises it above her head.  .  .  .  .  And Suzuki rushes in with Sorrow.  Butterfly quickly hides the knife, desperately embraces Sorrow, and tells him, “May you never know the sacrifice I am making for your sake.”  Suzuki and Sorrow leave the room, closing the screen.  In what seemed to me an appropriate and poignant touch, Suzuki prostrates herself before her own gods, thus acknowledging that she knew what Cio-Cio-San was about to do and that there was no alternative.  Meanwhile, in her room, Butterfly wasted no time in again raising the knife above her and then plunging it into her chest.

There are many operas in which the heroine suffers a mortal wound but goes improbably on to sing one more aria before finally keeling over dead.  Not this one.  She has already sung her last aria.  She wavers there on her knees and drops the knife.  She opens her mouth, but no sound emerges.  She wavers more as we hear Pinkerton rushing into the house.  Finally she topples over dead at the feet of Pinkerton as he flings back the screen.

Mercifully there is no curtain.  The lights dim slowly as the orchestra plays its last few tragic notes and Maestro Nicolo Luisotti lowers his hands.  An instant of stunned silence, then an outburst of enthusiastic applause.  I have just seen my best-ever performance of Madama Butterfly.

Cio-Cio-San, superstar

There is no question that Svetla Vassileva in her role as Butterfly is the star of this production.  I was pleased that she was given a special solo curtain call at the beginning of the applause. Most of the back half of the audience came to their feet the instant she appeared (and don’t ask me why practically no one in the front half stood).  And the number of boors who skipped the applause to race for the exits seemed much smaller than at the other three SFO operas I’ve attended so far this season.

Night falls on Pinkerton's house at the end of Act I

Although I have no complaints about the singing or acting of any of the other cast members, only the composer Giacomo Puccini (of course) and the overall staging of the opera deserve to share all-star billing with Ms. Vassileva.  I do not have a clear idea who does what on the Production Team, and I suspect that a large part of the success of the staging is that they work well together, so I am going to name all of them who are listed in the Press program:

Conductor, Nicola Luisotti Production, Harold Prince
Director, Jose Maria Condemi
Set_Designer, Clarke_Dunham Costume Designer, Florence Klotz
Original Lighting Designer, Ken_Billington Lighting Designer, Christine Binder
Chorus Director, Ian Robertson

Noh Theatre; photo courtesy Wikipedia

Since the opera is set in Japan, it seems highly appropriate to borrow some elements of Noh theater.  In particular, the design of Pinkerton’s “house” is clearly influenced by the traditional Noh theatre.  It is mounted on a circular platform which can be and is rotated slowly to show the house and garden from all angles.  The rotation is apparently done by six Kōken (後見) (stage hands) wearing masks and black robes who openly attach one end of a strap to the platform and very slowly rotate the stage either clockwise or counter-clockwise.  It was entirely appropriate that they were the first group on stage after Butterfly’s initial curtain call where they doffed their masks and took a bow.

They were followed by the usual array of chorus, minor roles, and the other principles: Stefano Secco (Pinkerton), Daveda Karanas (Suzuki), Quinn Kelsey (Sharpless), and an encore bow by Svetla Vassileva; finally the usual routine to get Maestro Nicola Luisotti on stage to acknowledge the orchestra, several bows by the entire ensemble.  House lights on, everyone on their feet.  I stand immobile, still under the trance of that final scene.  I turn to Sara and say, “I need a hug.”  She obliges, and I return to reality and the long ride home.  But I will remember this evening for a long time.


Giacomo Puccini

October 23 (8:00 p.m.)
October 26 (7:30 p.m.)
October 29 (8:00 p.m.)
Six performances in November with Daniela Dessi in the role of Cio-Cio-San

San Francisco Opera Production
Libretto by Guseppe Glacosa and Luigi Illica
Based on the works of John Luther Long and David Belasco
Approximate running time: 3 hours, including one intermission
Sung in Italian with English supertitles

San Francisco Opera
301 Van Ness Avenue
San Francisco, CA 94102
(415) 861-4008

Except as noted, all photos by Cory Weaver, San Francisco Opera

This review by Philip G Hodge was published in

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One Response to Madama Butterfly – Svetla Vassileva Superstars in a Superstar Production

  1. Peter Howden says:

    Re the Butterfly Review by Philip Hodge,

    I want to acknowledge Mr. Hodge for one of the finest reviews I have read. He was objective enough to be helpful and at the same time, not ashamed to give his own reaction to the performance. I was moved very much by the review , and now I will definitely go to the Paris Opera production of Madama Butterfly in March 2014, starring the same lead, Svetla Vassileva. Peter Howden

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