Madama Butterfly

I have half an hour to spare this lunchtime so I thought I would do a quick review of  the production of Giacomo Puccini‘s Madama Butterfly I saw last Saturday (4th April) at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. I got up at 4.30 on Saturday morning to get the 6am bus from Cardiff into London in order to see this Matinee, which started at 12.30, as the trains were screwed up by engineering work over the Easter weekend. As it happened the National Express coach  ran right on schedule so I had plenty of time to get breakfast and pick up the tickets from the Box Office before the performance.

The story of Madama Butterfly must be familiar enough to opera-goers. 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. Butterfly, who is really just a child, has certainly fallen for Pinkerton but the music seems to suggest that he has even convinced himself that it’s real love.

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.

Well, what did you expect from an opera,  a happy ending?

In this production the principals were the brilliant soprano Kristine Opolais as Butterfly and tenor Brian Jagde, who was a solid but unspectacular Pinkerton.  It turned out to be the last performance with these particular leading performers before a cast change. In fact this performance came up as “sold out” when I first looked on the website, but I persevered and managed to find a couple of tickets a few days later. I’m certainly glad we got to see Kristine Opalais who was in superb voice as the tragic heroine and acted with great subtlety and conviction. I’d also like to mention Enkelejda Shkosa as Suzuki, who was also very good.

The performance got off to a strange start, with an announcement from the stage that it would be delayed by about 30 minutes due to “serious problems backstage”. I wondered whether it was some mechanical problem with the set or a bust-up between members of the cast that needed to be calmed down. The orchestra began a bit hesitantly too, perhaps unsettled by the delay, but soon recovered.

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 at all nasty about Japan, although its attitudes are a bit dated and the whole opera glosses over the reality that the world of Cio-Cio-San is basically one in which child prostitution is commonplace.

Madama Butterfly is worth it for the music alone. Call me a softi,e but I love Puccini’s music which, after a slightly ropy start,  was handled beautifully by the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House under the direction of Nicola Luisotti.  This production was also visually beautiful, with exquisite costumes and a set consisting of a simple open space, accentuated from time to time with splashes of cherry blossom and glimpses of landscape and night sky revealed through sliding panels.

Here’s the trailer of the 2011 version of this production (with the same scenery and costumes) to give you an idea:

There’s only a couple of performances left of this run, but something tells me it will be revived again in the not too distant future.

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