Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly,” which opened in a new production at San Francisco Opera this week, always has been a shocker. An American naval officer serving in Nagasaki signs a contract to “wed” spirited 15-year-old Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly). She wants to believe it’s a real marriage, but after a night of marital bliss, he sails away on the USS Abraham Lincoln, to return three years later with an American wife. He returns to find Butterfly and a 3-year-old son in their barren rented room. Colonialist to the core, Pinkerton and his wife depart with the son as he expresses little remorse. 

At the War Memorial Opera House, director Amon Miyamoto and designer Boris Kudička take a path different from traditional productions that have pretty Japanese cottages and terraces full of flowers. In this staging, transparent scrims sweep over the stage, revealing not an elegant house with bamboo sliders and furnishings, but a small revolving cube (it resembles a box of tissues) to show where Pinkerton and Butterfly meet briefly and conceive a child. 

The design of San Francisco Opera’s new “Madame Butterfly” breaks from tradition. (Cory Weaver/Courtesy San Francisco Opera)

This “Butterfly,” however, is not about stage decor, but about glorious singing from all corners, and visceral, brilliant orchestral playing, led by San Francisco Opera Music Director Eun Sun Kim. The production is so dramatically intense; audience members clearly were shaken very early in a recent performance.

In the title role, South Korean soprano Karah Son portrayed a Cio-Cio-San who had serious doubts about what she was getting into. Her entrance was rough vocally, as if she was already questioning the deal she made; beautifully colored in the love scenes; brash and conflicted when questioned about Pinkerton’s love. At the outset she seemed uncomfortable in the heavy wedding gown, which she shed for a silk shift and short dress within minutes. Her “Un bel di” rang with an underlying defiance, sung with ardent phrasing and dark underpinnings, magnifying the tragedy to come.

Michael Fabiano as an especially caddish Pinkerton went all-out vocally — a big, ringing tenor that coupled with Son’s voice—potently proud of his conquest and, as he put it, looking forward to “a real American wife” in the future. His later appearance, in which he showed some feelings, could have had a touch more cynicism to make it in any way believable.  

From left, Lucas Meachem is Sharpless, Hyona Kim is Suzuki and Michael Fabiano is Pinkerton in Puccini’s “Madame Butterfly” onstage at the War Memorial Opera House. (Cory Weaver/Courtesy San Francisco Opera)  

Lucas Meachum sang with a beautiful, burnished baritone. He was a standout as U.S. Consul Sharpless, whose “heart is saddened” by Pinkerton’s behavior.

Mezzo-soprano Hyona Kim as Suzuki, Butterfly’s attendant, sang powerfully and expressed great angst in her tone and bearing. Julius Ahn was an extra-fussy marriage broker Goro, wasplike and querulous and pleased to see Butterfly break with her family and traditions and be cast out by family and community.

Onstage throughout the performance was a young man (John Charles Quimpo), who, as the adult son of Pinkerton and Butterfly followed the action, playing into the narrative at times. The directorial touch seemed odd initially, but it provided a useful sort of double narrative. Less effective were flashbacks of an ailing, hospitalized Pinkerton seeking some kind of future redemption. The child named Trouble was exceptionally well acted by Viva Young Maguire. 

San Francisco Opera’s “Madame Butterfly” is presented from the perspective of Cio-Cio-San’s adult son Trouble (John Charles Quimpo, left) pictured with his younger self (Viva Young Maguire, center) and Karah Son as the title character. (Cory Weaver/Courtesy San Francisco Opera)

It should be mentioned that the opera is based on a story by John Luther Long and an adaptation by David Belasco, a San Franciscan described in the program as “a flamboyant Jewish Latino.” This co-production premiered in Tokyo and is shared by Tokyo Nikikai Opera Foundation, Royal Danish Opera and Semperoper Dresden.

“Madame Butterfly” is the sixth most-often performed opera in the world.  In this rare staging, the forces come together notably and remarkably.  

“Madame Butterfly” continues at 7:30 p.m. June 9, June 21, June 24, June 27 and July 1 and 2 p.m. June 28 at the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $26 to $464. The June 9 performance will be live-streamed, with tickets at $27.50. For more information, call (415) 864-3330 or visit sfopera.com.