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Seattle did a cool thing last Saturday night; it simulcast the opening night of Madama Butterfly–for free–in Key Arena.  If you reserved a ticket online, you got in between 6 and 6:30.  Otherwise, you could come in between 6:30 and 7:30, the latter time being when the opera started.

I, of course, got a ticket, but had to chuck my water bottle before entering the arena, as cans and bottles were forbidden.  Incredible, then, that they were selling bottled drinks in the arena.  The nerve!

Having a ticket meant I got a very good seat for the festivities, right next to the reserved section, which had slightly better seats.  When one has a 50′ screen in front of one’s face, however, there aren’t many bad seats.

After hitting the restroom, I took a walk around the perimeter of Key Arena, past two or three concessions stands, people trying on opera costumes (all female), and tables manned by opera staff, where one could drop off a form for a chance to win a couple of free tickets to Turandot, which opens Seattle Opera’s next season.  Vendors were also selling opera souvenirs.  I ended up buying a mug with a very beautiful artistic representation of Madama Butterfly on it.  I’ll probably never drink from it.

While waiting for the opera to begin, different opera technicians, from clothing to stage designers, talked about what they did on the screen.  “What’s Opera, Doc?”, was also shown, though I missed part of it due to my wanderings around Key Arena.  Here’s a scene from it: http://youtu.be/C2VMqQ6XnmI

I could write about how a local TV personality talked half an hour before the simulcast began, or how people cheered when Speight Jenkins, the General Director, appeared on the screen, or how there was a mini-riot when the Key Arena staff weren’t quick enough to turn off the floodlights on the floor of the Arena (and how that sparked a backlash from people who wanted to hear the overture), but I imagine you want to hear about the simulcast itself, not superfluous details, no matter how interesting.

Making his Seattle Opera debut, the conductor Julian Kovatchev–who studied with Herbert von Karajan–brought out more of the instrumentation in the score than I have ever heard, but rushed the music in Act I when the Bonze arrives and denounces Cio-Cio-san (Butterfly) for converting to Christianity, which means he also rushed the denouncement by her family, which lessened the weight that the words should have on the audience, achieved with well-held fermatas.  He also rushed a bit in the Act I duet between Pinkerton (Stefano Secco, making his Seattle Opera debut) and Cio-Cio-san (Patricia Racette, also making her Seattle Opera debut), though this might have been to help his singers reach the end of the act before their voices collapsed, particularly Racette’s, whose voice seemed a bit strained in reaching and holding some of the high notes in both her Act I entrance and in the duet.  Secco, on the other hand, sang in tune, but went for power over finesse.  Still, he made a likeable Pinkerton, something that Brandon Jovanovich, the singer in the San Francisco Opera broadcast that I saw, failed to do.  After all, if Pinkerton acts like too much of a jerk in Act I, the audience won’t feel sorry for him in Act III.  The Sharpless here, Brett Polegato, was also better than the Sharpless at San Francisco (Stephen Powell).  In fact, his sympathetic portrayal of the American Consulate, along with his rich baritone voice, made his interpretation an exemplary one.

Only three factors were clearly better in San Francisco in 2007: the pacing of the music in Act I, the condition of Racette’s voice, and the Suzuki of Zheng Cao, who was as exemplary as Suzuki in that broadcast as Polegato was as Sharpless in the Seattle simulcast.  The Suzuki in Seattle, Sarah Larsen, a member of the Seattle Opera Young Artists Program, has a fine voice but lacks both the acting skills and gravitas that the role of Suzuki requires.  Plus, she looked too young to be Cio-Cio-san’s maid, though she sang a lovely “Flower Duet” with Racette.

The entrances and exits in San Francisco were also handled better: in Seattle, too many people crowded the stage too quickly right before Cio-Cio-san makes her entrance, when all of the movements should be as slow as the tempo to which she is singing.  Also, when her child appears, there’s more of an impact if he runs across the stage (San Francisco) than if she brings him out in her arms (Seattle).  Finally, the more “American” he looks, the more shocking the reveal, as it’s all the more obvious that it’s Pinkerton’s child.  Both children were great actors, but the one in San Francisco had blond hair and blue eyes (to match those of Jovanovich), compared to the more Japanese-looking child in the Seattle version.

The individual movements of the singers, however, were more affecting in Seattle, including Pinkerton’s and Butterfly’s actions toward each other during their love duet in Act I, Butterfly’s reaction to the cannon firing in Act II (signaling that a ship has come in), and the final scene, where Butterfly hears Pinkerton call out to her and hesitates before committing suicide (though Kovatchev almost ruined the effect by speeding up the final refrain of the “Japanese theme,” rather than playing it slower and with more gravitas).

In the final analysis, though, what makes or breaks a performance of this opera is the singer in the lead role, and while Racette’s voice may not have been as in good shape as it was five years ago, it’s still a fine instrument.  A little thinness at the top near the end of “Un bel di vedremo” aside, she had no problems vocally in Act II, and in Act III, she held nothing back, both in her interpretation and her singing.  Two times she devastated me: the first time, near the end of Act II, when she spots Pinkerton’s ship and ends with the great line, “Ei torna et m’ama (He has come back and he loves me)!” which was helped along by some gorgeous orchestral playing and three horn blasts that rivaled San Francisco Opera’s playing of that same section, and again during “Tu, tu, piccolo Iddio,” where all of her vocal reserves and artistry gradually built toward those two wailed “addios.”  For that aria alone, I was willing to forgive her vocal shakiness, her wrong notes, and the absence of the high D flat at the end of “Ancora un passo or via” (which she also left off in San Francisco).  Plus, she acted the role from beginning to end.

While the simulcast was not the greatest Madama Butterfly I have seen or heard, I would rank it slightly higher than the one I saw in San Francisco, and a great way to spend three hours.  I hope that Seattle decides to do more simulcasts in the future, not only of opera, but of other events, such as ballets and orchestral concerts.  If the city needs any more encouragement, I offer this story: as I was heading up the stairs to leave the arena, a young boy, who couldn’t have been more than 9 or 10, was walking on the other side of the railing from me, exclaiming to one of his parents how awesome the opera had been.

For information about the San Francisco performance that I saw: http://www.sanfranciscosentinel.com/?p=7631