The Sunday premiere, the first of eight performances in the War Memorial, held a full house in thrall, thanks to the composer's soaring, sweeping melodies, impassioned direction by the conductor (born and raised in Puccini's neighborhood) and a great soprano in the title role.
The story of the teenage geisha abandoned by Lt. B.F. Pinkerton, the ugly American antihero, is the second most often performed work in the War Memorial (after "La Boheme"), and Sunday's show was the 214th in company history. And the magic was there, both for the the majority of the 3,000-strong audience who often return to "Butterfly," as well as some newbies wiping their eyes.
The most important "Butterfly" veteran is Racette, who has starred in the opera for about a quarter century internationally as well as here, with the company that helped launch her career. And while no singer realistically can bring to life the supposedly 15-year-old heroine Cio-Cio-San, Racette is still dramatically believable and – except for some diminution in the top notes – sings gloriously.
Her grand aria, "Un bel di," one of the best-known tunes in opera (and commercials), received a well-deserved ovation after a premature outburst of applause following the last word, but before Luisotti went ahead, undeterred, and had the orchestra complete its part.
The orchestra embraced and lifted the voices throughout, from the first act's passion, to the second and third acts' pathos and tragedy. Concertmaster Kay Stern’s violin was an unselfish star.
Although he lacked the clarion-call high notes of Brandon Jovanovich, Racette's best partner (who was seen here seven years ago), Brian Jagde as Pinkerton has a lyrical voice, and acted in the difficult role of a cad well.
In major supporting roles, mezzo Elizabeth DeShong as Suzuki and baritone Brian Mulligan as Sharpless were excellent.
Designer Jun Kaneko, whose Mondrianesque "Magic Flute" setting was a great success here a couple of years ago, created abstract-angular-Japanese style for the production, which was mostly intriguing and pleasant, despite some bizarre costumes.
Credit goes to Kaneko and stage director Leslie Swackhamer for many memorable moments, including the striking entrance of the wedding party with sun umbrellas to expansive strains of "Quanto cielo! quanto mar!" ("So much sky...so much sea...")
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and July 3, 9; 8 p.m. Saturday and June 24, June 27; 2 p.m. July 6
Tickets: $24 to $379
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com