Madam Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini
Libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica
McCaw Hall, Seattle Center
August 5, 2017
Review by Sharon Cumberland
If you’ve never seen Madam Butterfly, now’s your chance—and you should take it. Seattle Opera’s powerful new production of Puccini’s tragic opera is a perfect coming-together of creative elements that bring musical and visual magic to the story of a young geisha sold in false “marriage” to an American naval officer. You may have seen one of its ever-popular spin-offs—“Miss Saigon,” “M. Butterfly” or one of the half-dozen film adaptations—but the most perfect telling of this heartrending story is Puccini’s opera. What began as a short story by John Luther Long in 1898 was adapted into a hit play by David Belasco in 1900, and took lasting form in 1906 when Puccini’s brilliant librettists, Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, stripped the story of its Japanese clichés and fake dialect, and focused on the emotional subtext that music expresses so well.
Cio-Cio-San, the 15-year-old Madam Butterfly, believes that her marriage to Lieutenant Pinkerton is binding but, as the audience well knows, Pinkerton considers her a temporary playmate. He leaves without a second thought when called back to America, making false promises to return. Giacosa and Illica’s masterful use of dramatic irony—where the audience knows more than the protagonist—propels the tragedy forward as Cio-Cio-San’s optimism sets her up for a terrible fall. In her most famous aria, “Un bel di,” Madam Butterfly anticipates the joy of Pinkerton’s return, seeing his ship appear on the horizon, seeing her husband approach the house, returning to take her and their love child back to America. Though Pinkerton returns after three years, he brings his American wife who expects to adopt Cio-cio-San’s child. When Butterfly’s illusions finally collapse in the face of reality, she commits suicide.
As grim a this story is, the musical motifs flow and tumble like currents of air in a Van Gogh painting—tortured and beautiful—giving you simultaneous layers of joy and anxiety. On opening night the star role of Butterfly was sung with charming naivety, soaring passion, and perfect pitch by Lianna Haroutounian, who made her Seattle Opera debut to enthusiastic—nay, wild applause. The opening night audience also had the unusual treat of hearing two leading men in the role of Lieutenant Pinkerton since debutant Alexey Dolgov, in the Saturday cast, withdrew after Act I with a cold, while Suday cast Dominick Chenes made an early debut by singing Pinkerton in the second act. Both, to my ears, were highly effective singing actors, though the two different men—Dolgov: wiry and sly, Chenes: soft and sorrowful—created the impression of a heartless Pinkerton who is magically transformed by remorse.
Aidan Lang, in his third year as General Director, continues to bring new talent to Seattle with no fewer than six debutantes in this production—not the least of whom are the Stage Director Kate Cherry and the Production Designer Christina Smith. What a pleasure to see women in these key creative roles. The set consisted of Madam Butterfly’s house—simple shoji screens that slide silently into different configurations as the drama spreads out or sinks inward, arranged under a decorative cube that hangs like a crown or a cage over the action. The lighting by designer Matt Scott, also making his debut, enhanced the nuances of feeling that flowed through the orchestra.
One of the most striking aspects of this production is the choice by directors and designers not to change the natural appearances of singers into some concept of Japanese-ness. As Gabrielle Nomura Gainor says in her excellent program article, “For years my community has been speaking out regarding issues of yellowface, cultural appropriation, and minority representation…[and consequently]…Seattle Opera’s Madam Butterfly will not attempt to change a given singer’s race through wigs or makeup.” While this takes a little getting used to for the audience, since Japanese characters in several cases looked decidedly Caucasian, it quickly came to feel correct because the gestures and costumes were used to convey cultural differences essential to the plot. In these sensitive times, when many of us in the traditionally dominant culture are learning to recognize the relationship between injustice, colonial history, white privilege, and racial/cultural appropriation, it’s befitting that institutions like Seattle Opera should lead the way in discussing and taking action on these issues. Indeed, Seattle Opera is setting an example for the nation on how to use an art form to address issues that need affective expression in addition to political expression.
instance, Seattle Opera’s Education and Community Engagement program is
bringing chamber operas to new audiences by addressing important contemporary
issues. Last year’s “As One” by Laura Kaminsky was a tremendously moving
depiction of lived experience for gender transitioning people—far more
effective in explaining the needs and problems of that community than any
journalism or political discussion. “The Combat: A Muslim/Christian Love Story
in Time of War” used early music and poetry to address one of the most
difficult problems of cultural conflict in our time. And this September the
issues raised in Madam Butterfly—racial profiling, western privilege,
colonialism—are addressed in a more contemporary chamber opera, “An American
Dream” by Jack Perla, about the incarceration of Japanese Americans during WWII
(September 7-17, 2017 at Washington Hall). Just as Puccini and his audiences
were trying to learn, through the arts, about Japanese and American culture in
the decades after Matthew Perry’s “Opening of Japan” in 1853, so Seattle Opera
in its willingness to
“tackle contemporary issues in our community” is using the arts to add dimensions to our understanding that only the power of music, drama, and singing can achieve.
Setting politics aside, however, Madam Butterfly is one of the best stories about love, betrayal, and remorse ever made into an opera. Puccini and his librettists were Italian—America and Japan were equally exotic to them. We tend to forget that this is an opera that shows our country as a strange place with weird customs and cultural assumptions. We see an arrogant young man swagger into a strange country and throw money around to fulfill his pleasures. In Act I Pinkerton sings “Everywhere in the world/the roving Yankee/takes his pleasure and his profit/indifferent to all risks…” In Madam Butterfly we can see ourselves through the eyes of Italian librettists and composer. We can ask ourselves, while wringing our hands over Madam Butterfly’s misguided optimism, have we changed very much? Are we making progress?
Seattle Opera’s Madam Butterfly is at McCaw Hall through August 19, 2017.