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Madama Butterfly Alternate Cast

Butterflycostume* Notes *
The alternate cast of Madama Butterfly performed the first of two performances at San Francisco Opera yesterday evening. Julian Smith did not take the tempi as fast as Runnicles, and though the orchestra was together, some of the woodwinds and horns did not sound their best. I believe the oboe sounded especially strange at the end of Act I, before the love duet, as Butterfly is undressing.

Marie Plette started off with lots of vibrato, and I was afraid I would be wincing for the rest of the evening, but once she warmed up, she sounded quite pretty. I remembered, when I read the program, that I did not like her in Seattle's latest Don Giovanni, but as Butterfly she was good. Her characterization of Butterfly certainly is different than Racette's, Plette is sweeter and more doll-like, she has more delicacy. Plette also has better posture. James Valenti was not as strong as Jovanovich in the role of Pinkerton. Vocally he was, at times, overwhelmed by both the orchestra and by Plette. His voice certainly is lovely, just a tad quiet. Valenti came off as milder in his acting as well, his movements were not as confident or boorish as they could have been. He was plaintive in his last appearance in Act II.

This particular production reads well in the back of the balcony, there were no times when I felt that OperaVision was revealing something I would have completely missed had it not been there. It was easier to appreciate how well Stephen Strawbridge's lighting design worked from further away. This time I also noticed that Butterfly's headdress is different than in 2006, instead of a circle of cloth, it is a drape of flowers.

* Tattling *
The house was not entirely full, though standing room was fairly crowded. I got to the box office a few minutes after 10 am, and was 22nd in line. I was able to stand behind an empty seat for the whole performance. There were quite a few latecomers that talked during the music in Act I, but by Act II the stragglers were comfortably in their seats. The applause was good and there were definitely sniffles, though Plette did not get a standing ovation in the balcony.

I was in my usual spot in the North Box Bar, having a champagne and strawberry dinner before the performance, and I left a bit early to go all the way to the top, intending to return at intermission. Apparently someone took the bottle of champagne to another table and started drinking it out of a water glass, and my server had to shoo him away. Hilarious! I do feel bad for the server though, it is no fun to have to ask people to behave themselves.

In that vein, my credit card was found yesterday, and I received a call about it in the afternoon, after I had retrieved my standing room ticket in the morning and returned to work in the East Bay. Unfortunate, given that I do not have time to get to the city early today, and they are not open on the week end. However, I am quite glad it has been found.

As an entertaining aside, I noticed quite a few women wearing Chinese or Japanese-inspired clothing to Madama Butterfly, including one person in a kimono and obi. I'm hardly one to judge appropriate attire, given that my main purpose in dressing up is to look as ridiculous as possible. However, I do find it odd that one would wish to dress up in the costumes of the culture being appropriated on stage. I don't think it is wrong, I just don't get it. The whole premise of Madama Butterfly makes me uncomfortable, so that certainly has something to do with it. Maybe next time Die Entführung comes to town I shall attend wearing a fez with my Turkish costume.

Thoughts On A Season of Glamour

Dressbarn_2Of late, every time I pass Dress Barn I think of San Francisco Opera's most recent promotional materials for subscriptions. "A Season of Glamour," indeed. This is the worst time of the year for me, because by next week, San Francisco Opera will have finished the Fall part of the season, and it will be all Nutcracker all the time at the War Memorial Opera House. Thirty performances in eighteen days! At least when the Summer part of the season is over, I only have to wait a month. Soon I will have no excuse to dress like I've been attacked by a blind post-modern square dancer. In the meantime, I suspect I will go see Otello, Der Zwerg, and Der zerbrochene Krug in Los Angeles, and I Puritani in Seattle. If I become desperate, I will also go hear the Puccini offerings at Los Angeles Opera, but I doubt it will come to that.

San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley's first season hasn't been too shabby so far. Of the eight productions, I thought I would like Die Zauberflöte most, but I was most moved by Tannhäuser. Though there were some stupid things about the latter's staging, on the whole I found it held up, unlike Macbeth. Macbeth certainly was the most entertaining offering all season, and Thomas Hampson's singing was my favorite this Fall. William Burden in The Rake's Progress was a close second for me. Usually I'm quite crazy for the ladies, so I'm a bit taken aback by this. Needless to say, I can hardly contain my excitement about Ariodante in the Summer. Ruth Ann Swenson, Susan Graham, and Ewa Podleś in Händel sounds almost overwhelming.

Appomattox did not annoy me as much I thought it would, in fact, I have to admit I liked it. (Though I could have been spared the message, as if I needed Philip Glass to tell me that racism still exists in the United States.) Madama Butterfly also was a surprise, everything just came together. I was underwhelmed by Samson et Dalila and La Rondine, in spite of Borodina and Gheorghiu, both of whom have amazed me in other performances.

Unlike many others, I did not dislike David Gockley's predecessor, Pamela Rosenberg. Even still, Gockley has made some good improvements. We have been getting many good singers lately. I also like the earlier start times and fewer intermissions. Technology certainly has been embraced in OperaVision, podcasts, and simulcasts. Some of this has been great, but I have noticed the house has become much noisier. I've heard stage managers in Macbeth and The Rake's Progress, headphone noise, and the like. At least Gockley seems receptive to criticism, he does call himself "Mr. Customer Service" and "Mr. Hospitality" in his introduction to the 2007-2008 Season, and he periodically holds question and answer sessions after performances.


A couple of weeks ago I left my credit card at the North Box Bar, I think I must have been overwhelmed by the opening of Macbeth. The card was turned into lost and found, but I did not manage to get there in time, so they supposedly sent it to the War Memorial Executive Offices over in the Veterans Building. This morning I went over there, but alack, my card was not there, and had not been logged as missing. Everyone I talked to was very nice, but I think it is time to give up and cancel the card.

Just before that I went to get standing room tickets for tonight's performance of The Rake's Progress, and for the first time, was not allowed to buy more than two. I rarely need to buy more than two tickets, but usually if I need an extra, the box office people will sell me one. It just means I have to go to the box office again, which is not terrible, just not the most convenient.

Anna Karenina

Cuttlefish in Anna KareninaAt the moment I am reading the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace. Though I attended a performance of Prokofiev's opera at the Met a few years ago, I stubbornly refused to read the titles. Thus I did not manage to piece together the plot, as my Russian skills are minimal, so the book has not been spoilt for me. Last month I finished reading Anna Karenina, unwittingly following one Ms. Winfrey, whose show I have never watched. Most of Part 5, Chapter 33 of Anna Karenina occurs at the opera.

Vronsky, listening with one ear, moved his opera glass from the stalls and scanned the boxes. Near a lady in a turban and a bald old man, who seemed to wave angrily in the moving opera glass, Vronsky suddenly caught sight of Anna's head, proud, strikingly beautiful, and smiling in the frame of lace. She was in the fifth box, twenty paces from him. She was sitting in front, and slightly turning, was saying something to Yashvin. The setting of her head on her handsome, broad shoulders, and the restrained excitement and brilliance of her eyes and her whole face reminded him of her just as he had seen her at the ball in Moscow. But he felt utterly different towards her beauty now. In his feeling for her now there was no element of mystery, and so her beauty, though it attracted him even more intensely than before, gave him now a sense of injury. She was not looking in his direction, but Vronsky felt that she had seen him already.

Opening of Madama Butterfly

Act I, Photo by Terrence McCarthy* Notes *
Yet another revival of Madama Butterfly opened today at San Francisco Opera. When I heard this opera was added to the season, I wondered if I would avoid it. I was pretty bored by it already the last time it was here in the summer of 2006, despite not having seen it for 9 years. Puccini generally is too mawkish for me, and Butterfly especially so. Additionally, I am indifferent to Patricia Racette, despite her personal beauty, fine acting, and strong voice. Nonetheless I found myself first in the standing room line this morning, for completeness sake, as a certain Prussian opera-goer I know would say.

The orchestra sounded quite fine, Runnicles took the tempi fast from the start. Racette was lovely, though at times her vibrato makes me feel uneasy. Her shoulders were slightly slumped, but otherwise her performance was splendid. Brandon Jovanovich had a promising debut as Pinkerton, he was suitably brash and vulgar in Act I, and remorse was certainly heard in Act II.  Stephen Powell (Sharpless) played well off of Jovanovich, exuding avuncular kindness. I've never heard anyone besides Zheng Cao as Suzuki, and she was as I remembered, warm and sympathetic.

The opera talk was unusual, as Rose Theresa discussed the Japanese melodies used by Puccini, and even used some koto music as her first example.

* Tattling *
The house looked quite full, and there were at least 50 people in line for standing room when we filed in at 10:50 am. Before the performance began, I was admonished for taking up too much room and was told I could not stand with both my elbows on the railing. This was pantomimed for me by a woman who wanted to squeeze in with her husband next to another couple next to me. It was strangely combative, considering I was perfectly willing to move. It turns out it didn't matter, one of the people next to me got a seat.

At intermission an usher told me I must really like opera, because she sees me so often. She also informed me that my outfits are entertaining, and asked if I was a designer.

There was a fit of loud beeping from the back of the orchestra section during the humming chorus. There was much sniffling for Butterfly, though I cannot say I was among those so moved. At the end Racette received a standing ovation, and a few audience members mockingly booed Kate and Pinkerton.

Penultimate Performance of Macbeth

Act IV, Photo by Terrence McCarthy* Notes *
I wasn't going to bore you with yet another review of Macbeth, but I had some thoughts about OperaVision and also wanted to pose a question. Thank goodness for OperaVision, or else one would never be able to see the large hole in the ceiling! Generally, I did not look at the screens too much, and they were only distracting during Lady Macbeth's Act IV mad scene, as the stage is dark except for the box. For certain parts of that scene, the cameras were focused on the bright white of the box, so it was slightly blinding and difficult to avoid. I noticed that the close-ups brought to light certain stage mishaps that would ordinarily only be seen by a fraction of the audience. For example, Duncan's crown fell off at the end of Act I, when he was being passed around by Banquo, Malcolm, and Macbeth. Elza van den Heever discreetly put it back on his head, and it was not really a problem. More absurdly, during Lady Macbeth's mad scene, Georgina Lukács did not manage to extinguish the candle precisely when the lights in the box went out.

In the last season, I have been hearing a lot of high-pitched squeaks. These noises are not the doors, which also squeak, at least in the back of the balcony, for I am able to localize exactly where the door squeaks are coming from. I am pretty sure they are not hearing aids, because the squeals seem too loud for that. I have heard squeaking in every performance I have been to at SF Opera in the last week, except for The Rake's Progress on Wednesday. I know I'm not entirely alone, for my friend noticed squeals during Tannhäuser. I appeal to you, gentle reader, have you noticed these high-pitched sounds? I've been trying my best not to notice them, but it is quite an exercise.

* Tattling *
The house was not totally full, anyone in standing room who wanted to sit could have. I had the misfortune of being behind a pair of women who moved into the center at the last moment, almost directly in front of me but not quite. They wanted to sit behind some empty chairs, which makes perfect sense given that in balcony rear, if the person in front of you leans forward, it blocks your view. Too bad these women were somewhat noisy, they whispered when there was no singing, so during the overture and such. I first sighed, then coughed, and then I hushed them and they were quiet for most of the first half.

I considered moving for the second half, but since they were silenced, I figured they would be quiet for the second half, especially as it has proved most soporific, despite its great beauty. In fact, one of the women was asleep for most of the last two acts. She only woke up during the applause, when she would make demands of her companion, as she was rather cold. She spoke during Macduff's aria, a shame considering that Alfredo Portilla was sounding the best he has.

By the end of the opera I was sniffling a great deal, and it occurred to me that I was allergic to the vast quantities of perfume the two women were wearing. At least I didn't have a coughing fit. I am happy to report that the sleeping woman clapped excessively, and screamed at the top of her lungs. Interestingly, after hearing others bravo, she switched to that instead.

Actually, it was not as bad as I've made it out to be, they were quiet for Thomas Hampson, so I shouldn't complain. The most amusing thing was they were both quite cold, kept putting on layers and layers of clothing during the performance, and had to snuggle up to one another. On the other hand, I was overheated, and had to bundle up my hair and roll up the sleeves of my fake Bavarian outfit:

Opera Tattler Fake Bavarian