Dessi’s underpowered singing makes for clipped “Butterfly” wings at San Francisco Opera

November 12, 2010

Daniela Dessi as Cio-Cio San in San Francisco Opera's production of Puccini's "Madama Butterfly." Photo: Cory Weaver.

Few operas remain as surefire box office as Madama Butterfly, with companies relying on Puccini’s romantic tragedy of the ill-fated Japanese geisha Cio-Cio San to guarantee sold-out houses even in the current economic slump.

That’s usually the case, but there were plentiful empty seats in the War Memorial Opera House Thursday night for San Francisco Opera’s performance starring Daniela Dessi.

Perhaps local audiences–among the savviest operagoers in the country—had already caught Svetla Vassileva in the early incarnation of this run or had gotten word of the vocal state of her successor in the role.

Whatever the case, this was not one of the company’s great nights, largely because of Dessi’s diminished vocal resources and indifferent acting.

The Italian soprano has had a notable career and been a reliable figure in many of the big Puccini roles, but best suited to Manon Lescaut.

At 53, however, her voice has lost much of its luster and gleam. For most of Thursday night, Dessi sounded distinctly underpowered, her voice secure in the middle range but startlingly weak above and below. While she parceled her vocal resources artfully, Dessi’s singing was lacking in all the major moments. She simply passed on the top note of the love duet; nor could she sustain the climax of Un bel di, even with breaking it up with a big breath. If you can’t handle the vocal demands of Butterfly, you probably shouldn’t be singing this role.

Dramatically, Dessi was also wanting, her pensive, unsmiling Cio-Cio San conveying little of the child bride’s girlish charm or humor in Act 1, and, while more dramatically effective after intermission, this was not exactly a Butterfly to break one’s heart.

In a role debut, Stefano Secco’s Pinkerton seems to be a work in progress. The Italian singer has an attractive vibrant tenor, if one a bit small for the role. Secco appeared to be forcing his voice for power at the big moments, not always successfully.

Daveda Karanas made a rich-toned, wonderfully empathetic Suzuki. Quinn Kelsey was a big-voiced youthful Sharpless, Thomas Glenn a solid Goro, Christian Van Horn an imposing Bonze, Austin Kness, a hoarse Yamadori.

The celebrated Harold Prince production created for Lyric Opera of Chicago remains visually striking and evocative with its black-shrouded kabuki figures pulling the rotating house and garden, though the nearly 30-year-old set is starting to look its age.

Julian Kovatchev made a variable impression in his SFO debut. The Bulgarian conductor drew playing of rich dramatic heft in the big moments, but at times his direction was out of synch with the singers, with the orchestra too often on the extreme side of loud.

Madama Butterfly runs through Nov. 27. 415-864-3330.

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