Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly debuted in 1904 and it has been jerking tears ever since. The opera classic remains resilient and fresh when done well, as it is in this Seattle Opera production playing through Aug. 19 at Seattle’s McCaw Hall.
The opera has heartbreakingly lyrical music, a heartrending story — and Butterfly. She is a huge character: tough, demanding, sweet, beautiful, desirable, playful – and stubborn. She refuses to face reality until she can’t do anything about it. She is Puccini’s bona fide tragic heroine, unlike Mimi in La Boheme, whom we know will die. Mimi is not destroyed by herself, by some tragic flaw; she dies of tuberculosis. On the other hand, Butterfly crafts much of her own fate.
Puccini created exquisite music and knew how to seduce us by synching it with dramatic moments. The music is chock full of mellifluous tunes and gorgeous arias. But it’s as complex as Japanese customs. Underneath, like a bass line, the music suggests caution and treachery. The ominous boom of the drums reminds us that all is not well.
The opera’s plot is as familiar as the first act’s “love duet” between Butterfly and Lt. Pinkerton. But here goes again: A mid-level American sailor (Lt. Pinkerton sung alternately by Dominick Chenes and Alexey Dolgov) stops off in Japan, marries Butterfly when she’s 15 with help of a marriage broker, sets up house with her, impregnates her, and leaves. Butterfly believes he will return for her and her son and their life as a family will commence. She holds on to this fantasy despite warnings and reasoning from those around her. She has another suitor, she has ways out. But she shrugs him off and turns her back. No one can convince her that her dreams are doomed.
Pinkerton returns three years later when Butterfly is 18, not to again take up housekeeping with her, but to retrieve their son, Sorrow, with his new American wife, Kate (Sarah Mattox). And when the moment arrives, he lets his wife do the dirty work by telling Butterfly her son will go to America. Meanwhile he has a minor breakdown. It’s clear why Pinkerton gets booed over and over again at curtain calls even if the role is sung by decent tenors.
Though set in the early 20th-century colonial world Australian stage director Kate Cherry’s rendition is staged with a nod to Japanese theater (painted backdrops, black-clad “stage hands” opening and closing shoji screens of the brightly lit Japanese house). That house, by the second act, turns into a kind of cage for Butterfly.
Japanese soprano Yasko Sato sang Butterfly (a/k/a Cio-Cio-San) the evening I attended the opera. Her performance was consistently breathtaking. I’ve heard several Butterflys over the years, but Sato triumphs over others with her nimble voice, subtle Japanese posturing, and spot-on portrayal of stubbornness. (Armenian Lianna Haroutounian sings the role in alternating performances.) Sato was making her U.S. debut with this enormous role. She’ll be back!
The entire second act is pretty much hers. She does have duets, most notably with mezzo Renee Rapier (Suzuki), who sings the “Flower Duet” with her, rapturously tossing cherry-tree petals across the room in false anticipation of Pinkerton’s return. Most movingly, when Butterfly doesn’t sing, she stands at the edge of the stage, looking over the sea, throughout the long haunting “humming chorus.” She waits all night for Pinkerton, her shoulders dropping as dawn approaches without his boat. She is realizing, slowly, that this fated reunion is not going to happen, that her “Americanized” life for which she sacrificed her religion and relatives, and now her dignity, is nothing but an unfinished dream
But mostly Butterfly sings. And it is true pleasure to listen to Sato. The rest of the cast was fine, but she was superb. Italian Carlos Montanaro, a Puccini specialist, soulfully and energetically conducts.
Political controversy and social criticism circle around Butterfly and the perpetuation of the fragile Asian “lotus blossom” character. I argue that Cio-Cio-San, ultimately aware of her fate, is not a delicate lotus blossom, nor particularly frail, innocent and naïve. Most certainly, to a great extent, she is done in by the rigidity of Japanese culture, and the insensitivity of colonial culture, but she has choices and agency at certain points.
Despite the politically correct notions that art should neither portray nor repeat such stereotypes, in part, because they prolong racist thinking, this production does a respectable job of prompting us to think about typecasts and pigeonholes, the evils and ills of the colonial zeitgeist, and the Western disrespect for the Eastern world.
However, this Butterfly doesn’t let us forget the music. I’ll return to hear it again and again, production after production.