Giacomo Puccini created stunning music and synched it precisely with unfolding drama. He drew characters with staying power — after he revised and revised. Even world-weary music critics love his work, and love it over again when the opera is well done. Madame Butterfly, winding up this week with final Portland Opera performances Thursday and Saturday at the Keller Auditorium, sold out both previous performances this week because the piece is among the best-known and beloved in the canon, but also because it has heartbreakingly lyrical music, a heartbreaking story — and because of Butterfly. She is a helluva character. She’s tough. She’s sweet. She’s complex.
Christian Smith, who has directed this Frank Corsaro production over 40 years with 22 different Butterflies, knows he is blessed with soprano Kelly Kaduce, who sings and acts pitch perfectly in Portland. Smith, who directed the 2005 production in Portland (and stays in shape — he’s in his early 80s — with tap dancing) calls Kaduce’s performance “fragile” yet imbued with teen “brattiness.” Butterfly is 15 years old in the first act — playfully goading Pinkerton (tenor Roger Honeywell) and his right-hand man Sharpless (sung by the very tall baritone John Hancock) to guess her age on the marriage day.
Two acts later, she’s dead by her own hand and her father’s dagger. She’s 18, with a three-year-old son.
A much praised lyric soprano, Kaduce gave birth to her first child 10 months ago, and she’s not a teen-ager, but she knows how to act like one. The second act is almost solely hers, and she sings huge chunks of the first and last acts. She rides the emotional (war) horse from childish playfulness (“Lo sono la faniculla piu lieta Giappone” – “I am the happiest girl in Japan”) and sexual insecurity (“Vogliatemi bene, un bene picccolino, un bene da bambina” — “Love me with a little love, a childlike love”) to stubbornness and anger, through maternal protectiveness (“A triste madre! Abbandonar mio figlio! — “Oh unhappy mother, to be obliged to give up my son!”) and finally, inconsolable grief. Kaduce hits the high notes, figuratively and literally. A veteran at the role, she takes the character deeper than a fragile victimized butterfly trapped and undone by American indifference. But Puccini wrote it that way, too.
This 1904 drama about American naval officer B.F. Pinkerton, who takes (or “buys” with the help of a marriage broker) a teen-age Japanese bride, loves her, leaves her, and then comes back for his child, is based on a true story. The practice was routine, as preposterous as it sounds to globally sophisticated citizens, and continued well into the 20th century when American military men went East, stayed awhile, loved a little, set up house, then up and left.
So Madame Butterfly is a platform for cultural outrage, stereotypes and villains. But Puccini is wise enough to stay away from villains, though the stereotypes are as heavy as the opera’s kimonos. Take your college-age son to this opera, and he will point out the rampant cultural oversimplifications, the lack of Asian singers (though the makeup and wigs make up for that gap), the mincing steps of the “Japanese” characters, the whiskey-swilling American sailors who mock the Japanese servants while foisting their flasks of booze onto them.
But opera is not in the business of political correctness. Those stereotypes spring from accurate observations during the early 20th century, however exaggerated, and this production makes no effort to “correct” them.
Still, Puccini does pretty well at keeping villains out of the tragedy, though the opening-night audience booed Pinkerton (Honeywell) when he took a final bow. Puccini sands down the tall, handsome Pinkerton into a wimp rather than portraying him as a callous, thoughtless son-of-a-bitch. He creates characters with some moral fiber — the servant Suzuki (sung and acted beautifully by mezzo Kathryn Day), who remains loyal to Japanese traditions and to Butterfly. Sharpless, who questions Pinkerton’s motives and feels like a cad when dealing with Butterfly, is a decent guy, too, but he ultimately caves.
And no one, even the feisty Butterfly, can overcome the force of culture. The East-West relationship is headed for unhappiness. That is tragedy enough. But to make matters worse, when Pinkerton returns to Japan three years after he has “married” Butterfly, it’s not to pick up his relationship with her, or to apologize for marrying another wife, or to express remorse for totally ignoring her for three years. It’s to retrieve his blue-eyed “half-caste” son. And he brings along his American wife, sung by the lovely Caitlin Mathes, who is among the crop of this year’s Portland Opera Studio Artists. She pleads with Butterfly not to hate her if she takes the boy! Outrageously over-the-top, we think, but not for the days in which the opera was written.
Butterfly, though naive and holding fast to her hopes, grasps by the middle of the third act that if she keeps her child, she will be ruined by gossip, her child will be an outcast, and she will suffer dishonor. So it’s not just her grief and outrage that do her in: It’s her culture.
The deep sadness for me is not the final scene when she stabs herself after insisting that Pinkerton climb back up the hill to retrieve their son (he’s let his American wife, Kate, do the dirty work of telling Butterfly they are taking the boy). It is the second act that jerks the tears.
In this act, Butterfly, dressed in Western clothes with a freshly cut bob, frets about money and lagging time as she waits in her tiny hilltop home with soshi doors and a shrine to the “American god” and the American flag (she has renounced her native faith and the relatives have disappeared with her renunciation). She begs and nags Suzuki to have faith in Pinkerton’s return, and she glows as her exceptionally well-behaved son plays with a toy boat, a replica of Pinkerton’s. Her delusions and dreams swamp her. She believes that her husband will return.
How can we not tear up during “Un bel di” (“One fine day we’ll see a wisp of smoke arising”)? How can we NOT hope and hope and hope for her as she stares out over the harbor, waiting for the boat, her straight brave back to us for a dramatic minute as Puccini’s soaring music plays on and the curtain closes?
Bring your handkerchief. You’ll have company.