Madam Butterfly

Apparently the production of Giacomo Puccini‘s Madam Butterfly I saw last night is now over thirty years old , but the current revival by Welsh National Opera still managed to fill the Wales Millennium Centre. The critics might carp that a season of three operas that includes both this one and La Traviata isn’t exactly radical scheduling, but WNO has to cope with economic realities and they need to put bums on seats in order to survive. Recycling old productions like this is one way of maximising revenue that they can spend on future productions. Fortunately, although I have seen Butterfly several times, I haven’t seen this particular staging so have no reason to complain that it’s doing the rounds yet again.

The story must be familiar enough. Cio-Cio-San – the Madam Butterfly of the title – a 15 year old Geisha, is betrothed to Lieutenant BF Pinkerton of the United States Navy who has come to Japan with his ship. Pinkerton is contemptuous of all things Japanese, and shows his true nature by explaining that he has paid just 100 Yen  for his new wife via a marriage broker. She, however, is devoted to her new husband; so much so that she renounces her religion in favour of that of her man (although I doubt Pinkerton ever goes to church). Act I culminates with their wedding and a gorgeous love duet with the kind of ravishing music that only Puccini can supply.

Act II is set three years later. Pinkerton has gone back to the States, but Butterfly waits patiently for his return, singing the beautiful aria Un bel di vedremo, or One Fine Day as it is usually translated. Her maid Suzuki thinks that he will never come back – she never liked Pinkerton anyway – and points out that they’re running out of money, but Butterfly refuses to contemplate giving up on him and marrying again. She  has had a son by Pinkerton and intends to remain faithful. At the end of Scene 1 we find that Pinkerton’s ship has arrived and Butterfly waits all night to greet him. The exquisitely poignant cora a bocca chiusa (humming chorus) accompanies her vigil.

After this intermezzo, Scene 2 finds  us at dawn the following day. Butterfly is asleep. Pinkerton shows up, but he has brought with him a new American wife who offers to rescue Butterfly from poverty by adopting her son and taking him to America. Butterfly awakes, finds out what has happened. Pinkerton has left money for her but she refuses to take it, having already decided to kill herself.  She says goodbye to her son with the heartbreaking aria  Tu, tu piccolo iddio, binds his eyes so he can’t see, then kills herself. Pinkerton and his wife arrive to see her bloody corpse.

In this production the principals were Amanda Roocroft, an excellent singer and a fine actress but a bit miscast as Butterfly. Tenor Russell Thomas on the other hand was exactly right as Pinkerton: brash burly and arrogant but with a superb tenor voice. Pinkerton is a complete bastard, of course, but he has to have enough charisma for you to imagine that it’s possible Butterfly to fall for him. Their singing together at the end of Act I was rapturous, dispelling any doubts about the reality of the mutual desire.

The staging is quite simple: a traditional Japanese house with sliding screens surrounded by stylised trees and gardens. The costumes were less colourful than I had expected, dominated by browns and beiges rather than brightly coloured pattern silks. Thankfully they resisted the temptation to plaster on the make-up to try make the characters look Japanese; all that ever achieves is to make all concerned look ridiculous.

The original production of Madam Butterfly was staged in 1904 (although it took several revisions before the two-act version we saw last night emerged). It therefore dates from a time when Europeans (including Puccini) were quite ignorant about Japanese culture. Modern audiences probably find some of the stereotypes rather uncomfortable. I would say, however, that the only two characters in the Opera to show any moral integrity and nobility of spirit are the maid Suzuki and Butterfly herself. The rest are unpleasant in some way or other, especially Pinkerton who is completely odious. So the Opera is not nasty about Japan, although its attitudes are a bit dated.

Madam Butterfly is worth it for the music alone – call me a softy but I love Puccini’s music. The score was handled beautifully in this performance by Carlo Rizzi. He’s a master storyteller too and it’s a beautifully crafted piece of musical theatre.

Overall I’d probably give this production about 7/10: enjoyable and professionally done, but perhaps with just a hint that it is nearing the end of its shelf-life. Although at times it was wonderfully impassioned, at other times I had the feeling that the cast were just going through the motions.

I have been dithering about mentioning one unfortunate thing about the production, which did have people around us sniggering. Butterfly’s son is blond with blue eyes –  she sings about this,  in case there is any doubt. Russell Thomas (Pinkerton)  is an African-American. The plot involves a scene in which questions are asked about whether Pinkerton really is the boy’s father. That is not supposed to be funny, but it was glaringly obvious that the son of  black man and a Japanese woman is not going to have blond hair and blue eyes…

You always have to suspend your disbelief a bit in the opera theatre, but this was going a bit far. There’s no reason at all not to cast a black singer as Pinkerton, especially when he has such a fine voice. He looked the part as a naval officer, but surely something could have been done to avoid this obvious absurdity?

Anyway, I don’t want to end on a blemish so here’s a short clip of the humming chorus taken from a production with staging not dissimilar to what we saw last night, complete with authentic coughing from the audience.

One Response to “Madam Butterfly”

  1. […] Wozzeck It was a late decision for me to go to see Welsh National Opera’s production of Wozzeck last night (Friday 2nd October) at the Wales Milennium Centre. It has been a busy week and I’m travelling at the weekend too, so I wasn’t sure I could fit it in. In the end, I am really glad I did because it was by far the best of the three operas WNO are presenting in the current season; you can read about the other two here and here. […]

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