Madama Butterfly tells the story of B.F. Pinkerton (Christopher Jackson) of the US Navy who on a whim purchases a 999-year lease on a home overlooking the harbor in Nagasaki, and works out a similar agreement with a marriage broker Goro (Matthew Surapine) for the young Cio-Cio-San (Shu-Ying Li), known as Butterfly. He does this because he knows he can break the contract at any time and he even as he prepares to marry Butterfly he toasts his future “real wife” from America. As loathsome and culturally insensitive as he is, Cio-Cio- San can’t help but fall in love with Pinkerton, and in a weird way the American Dream as she rebukes her family and Japanese culture. The second act is dedicated to Cio-Cio-San patiently awaiting Pinkerton’s return despite everyone she knows telling her that it is false hope. In the final act, Pinkerton does return — with his American wife. In the final insult, their only purpose is to take Cio-Cio-San’s sun Sorrow with them to America. Cio-Cio-San allows them to take her son, but takes her own life as well just before the curtain falls.
Critically, there are things that are hard to buy in this story. What makes Cio-Cio-San fall in love with Pinkerton? There seems to be no excuse for her foolishness even if she had few other options available to her due to her culture and gender. Yet, in a sense that is true to life. People are blinded by love, blinded by hope, and blinded by dreams. That is the real tragedy to me because love, hope, and dreams are three of the most positive qualities of humanity, and yet they can destroy us.
Leaving the theater we overheard a woman say “They should have killed him instead of her.” I wonder what the audience of Puccini’s time thought about Pinkerton’s moral choices. Puccini and his librettists certainly seem to want to make us understand Pinkerton’s remorse in the third act. Of course Pinkerton acts on that remorse by going off and moping on his own instead of, you know, actually speaking with the woman he impregenated and abandoned. Do pre-feminist audiences think this was good enough, even progressive for an American man? The mind boggles.
Musically, Madama Buttefly is full of beautiful, heart-wrenching melodies. Shu-Ying Li especially carries the show with her lyrical voice. The second act in particular has some of her best arias and a lovely intermezzo by the orchestra. Christopher Jackson is kind of stiff, but his stage time is actually overshadowed by supporting characters Suzuki (Keri Alkema) and Sharpless (Marco Nisticò). The characters provide the conscience and realism to counterbalance the leads, and their voices provide beautiful singing, albeit Alkema spends much of the performance laying on the floor weeping. I love how operas are cast by voice not by physical appearance so that the American Alkema plays a Japanese house servant and the Italian Nisticò plays an American Consul, adding the multicultural soup. Henry Titcomb as Sorrow doesn’t sing but provides a touching and charming performance as a typical little boy.
The staging and costumes are also great. I’ve seen so many productions lately that update the costumes to another place and time that it was nice to see them sticking to 1900-era Japanese and American fashions. I particularly liked that all the women in the wedding scene wore small American flags in their hair. In a great dramatic moment at the climax of the opera that may not be noticed by those without opera glasses, Cio-Cio-San removes the Star-Spangled Banner from Sorrow’s hand and replaces it with the Rising Sun. The stage is set simply but used effectively. A set of steps at the back of the stage represent the hill upon which Pinkerton’s house while sliding doors represent the walls. In Act II, Cio-Cio-San, Suzuki, and Sorrow spread a silk cloth and flower petals across the steps. The safety commissar in me cringes at the thought of the boy slipping down the steps, but visually the effect was beautiful.
For those keeping score, this was my fourth opera. I’m not the most cultured guy but I do enjoy the experience.