Idiots at the Opera — Madama Butterfly, Now with Puppets

We didn’t know much about Madama Butterfly beyond the basics – it’s about east meets west resulting in a cultural misunderstanding, there’s kick ass aria – Un bel di, and like most operas named for their heroines, the title character dies at the end.

There’s a 1930s film version which is not an opera or even a musical, starring nice Jewish girl Sylvia Sydney as the geisha-wife, and Cary Grant as the American, Pinkerton. I never saw the whole thing, but I did catch the last few minutes, in which Cio-Cio San explains to her child that he’s going to be white and American now, and that’s for the best. Then she offs herself, so that he will grow up never knowing the awful truth of his mixed heritage.

Fortunately, there’s none of that in Puccini’s version. Pinkerton is a bumbling American, a callow young man who confides in the Counsel in the first act that he is not taking his temporary marriage seriously. He’s warned that his bride might, and he ignores the warning. It’s clear he’s going to leave her and he’s going to take an American wife. Everyone – including all the other Japanese – understands this, except for Butterfly herself. She is after all only fifteen years old, and naively believes that love means something, and that he understands the sacrifices she’s made for him. There’s so much foreshadowing that even if you didn’t already know how it ends, you’d know.

The music and libretto refer to the cultural differences, but transcend them. This is a story about a naive young woman, and the man who seduces her and leaves her. The tragedy is that she continues to believe in his love for her to the point of blindness. She doesn’t accept the proposal of the rich Japanese prince that will “save” her. She doesn’t listen to good advice.

Kristine Opolais was good, but perhaps not great in the demanding role. She’s a charismatic performer but her voice lacks what the better-half referred to as je ne sais quoi, but could also be described as depth, power, suppleness. On the other hand, she captured the pathos and feeling – the drama —  and sustained that throughout.

Adam Diegal was Pinkerton the night we saw it. It’s hard to feel any sympathy for Pinkerton, but Diegal managed to make Pinkerton’s remorse feel real especially with his last cries.

Dwayne Croft as Sharpless, the sympathetic Counsel, and Maria Zifchak as Butterfly’s housekeeper and confidant, Suziki, both provided excellent support. Kudos to the humming chorus.

The production makes use of Bunraku puppetry which is a traditional Japanese theatrical art form. Three onstage operators dressed in black with veils so we aren’t supposed to “see” them, control the puppets which were used in this production during the first act and in the second act to represent both Butterfly in a dream sequence and her son. The extended use of the puppet as Cio-Cio San’s son was (for me) extremely distracting. We were up in the family circle. When I put up my opera glasses and got a close look at those dead empty little eyes, I nearly gasped. The singers, especially Ms Opolais, did a wonderful job of acting with the puppets, but still. Granted the child is supposed to be no older than three and clearly you’d need a slightly older child to handle the cues, but surely one could be found. The dream sequence would have been even more powerful as a human pas de deux.

I hadn’t done any reading up before we went and was only familiar with the basic plot and the most famous aria. I was surprised by how unsympathetic Pinkerton is from the get go. He’s very much the stereotypical xenophobic, arrogant American creating havoc wherever he goes. This is supported by both the libretto and the music with its references to The Star Spangled Banner. Again, having only seen the previously mentioned mawkish film version, I was surprised by this, and decided to look up a thing or two when I got home.

I found there are two sources for the story. The first was Madame Chrysanthème, an 1887 French novel in which a Frenchman takes on a Japanese Geisha wife. In that version, he’s dispassionate and ironic, and she’s a bit of an operator. The second and primary source was Madame Butterfly, a short story published in 1898, written by an American, John Luther Long, which was influenced by the earlier French novel. It’s the 1898 story that gives us Pinkerton in all his glory and obtuseness and Cio Cio San in all her lovely innocence. The tone is satiric, and Adelaide, Pinkerton’s American wife is about as awful as she could be. Adelaide meets Cio-Cio San in the Counsel’s office but doesn’t know who she is. She refers to her as a “pretty plaything.” She’s there to arrange grabbing the blue-eyed child her husband fathered and giving him a proper Christian home in America.

In that version, a distraught Cio-Cio San goes home and tries to kill herself, but Suzuki dissuades her, getting her to see her child’s welfare is more important than whatever that bastard did to her. She’s gone the next day when Pinkerton and legal wife come to pick up the baby. Presumably she’s learned her lesson and married her prince.

It was the play, performed in 1900, and written by David Belasco, that first gave us the tragic ending. Cio-Cio San’s dialogue is in heavily accented English that reads like minstrel-dialect, which renders her not quite human. Here is where we see her act of suicide as sacrifice so that her child can have a better life as a white American. In Puccini’s version, we are spared that at least. Her death is tragic, but the piece doesn’t completely lose the satiric tone. She dies because she equates her pride with her honor. She backed Pinkerton – the wrong horse, and she lost. She’s heartbroken and headstrong. Had Suziki interrupted, as she did in the story, she might have been able to talk some sense into the girl, but it would have been a lot less dramatic.

There are three more performances scheduled, but this was the last with  Opolais and Diegel. Ziftak and Croft are staying on, and Hui He will be taking the lead. He’s previous performances in the role have been hailed as “sensational,” so that might be a reason to see it, even if you are afraid the puppets will give you nightmares. If you are looking for cheap and/or last minute seats, there’s some useful information here.

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