It’s All In The Details – Madama Butterfly in Valencia

Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is a well-known, much-loved and, indeed, popular opera. The genre is full of femme fatales, Butterfly, Tosca, Manon, Carmen, Lucía, Violetta and Katya, to give just one example, who in the end succeed, so it might be thought that there is not much to see in terms of new perspectives when a job so familiar with such good -The worked theme is staged. Opera lovers, however, will confirm that there definitely is.

Audiences tend to fall into two distinct groups, those for whom any departure from their own preconceptions spells the end of civilization, and those for whom radical interpretation is a welcome challenge to the establishment. However, there is another perspective in which directors, through small changes in staging, can completely transform the way we understand these often rigidly interpreted stories. Such was the success of Emilio López, the director of the recent production in Valencia. His 2021 staging of Butterfly will air on Opera Vision on Sunday, December 19, and will be available through that website for a few weeks. It succeeds on several levels, one of which is revealing.

Let’s start with the term verismo. That certainly applied to the way Puccini approached his work and implies that the setting must not be palatial and that the characters can be represented as ordinary people. We can assume that the composer never experienced the opera stage in Japan in the mid-19th century, so if verismo applies to Butterfly, then it applies primarily at the ideological level. That said, opera’s potential for period drama often outstrips designers and directors so much that even recognition of verismo in the result it is darkened. In other words, everything gets pretty before it can get believable. And it is verismo that suffers

In the first act, Cio-Cio-san describes how she came from a poor home and became a geisha due to lack of opportunities. The Mikado presented his father with the ceremonial dagger he eventually uses to take his own life and asked him to use it on himself. We must assume that Butterfly’s family was already in disgrace. She then compounds this misfortune by rejecting their cultural and religious traditions, an act that Uncle Bonze condemns, leading her friends and community to shun her, all except Suzuki of course. The fact that Puccini then takes us to the love scene on the wedding night often obscures this rejection. In the Valencia production, a backdrop that had featured cherry blossoms becomes the starry night of the couple’s ecstasy, but it does so by melting like celluloid in an overheated projector, implying that the comforting blossoms of the past have been destroyed. The starry night persists in acts two and three, but thus becomes a symbol of Butterfly’s continued isolation and insistence, indeed imperative, to live in the past.

Cio-Cio-san is often portrayed as a meek and thus stereotypical Asian woman, who has never practiced the word “bu” around geese nearby. As a result, she often becomes Pinkerton’s devoted naive, even simpleton, even though, as a geisha, she must have had experience with the night sailor. The supplicant image kills her in the public eye, perhaps, but it strips her of the identity and individuality she certainly has, otherwise she would never have pursued her own private desires with such determination.

The point is that she doesn’t have many options. She is poor. She is a geisha. She has done her job. Pinkerton offers her a way out, which she, perhaps naively, accepts. But once you’ve made the commitment, you can’t go back. She wants to please him, but in doing so she suffers rejection from her own community. But she has to accept the risk.

In Valencia, Emilio López recognizes that Cio-Cio-san lives in poverty. Ignored by Pinkerton for three years and still shunned by her own community, she and Suzuki live amid decay and filth. The temptation to portray Butterfly still in her opulent geisha attire makes no sense and is convincingly avoided in this production. Suzuki confirms this poverty in the libretto. What too often seems like blind faith on Butterfly’s part now becomes a necessity, imposed by her community due to her rejection by them. She can’t go back. She has no choice. This is an element of verismo in opera that directors often overlook.

But in this Valencian production, the real surprise comes at the end. Pinkerton has returned but has refused to see Butterfly. He storms off because he can’t take it anymore… However, he loves the child. Butterfly tells his new American wife and Sharpless to come back in half an hour to take the child. Please note that Pinkerton has not listened to your request.

However, Butterfly has plans of her own, plans that involve using that ceremonial weapon her father used to kill himself. The elements are clear. Butterfly commits suicide, Pinkerton’s voice is heard returning. But maybe not…

The usual way to deal with this is to have Butterfly stab herself in the orchestral tutti and then have the sound of Pinkerton’s voice heard as he dies. If Pinkerton isn’t seen, it could be argued that he really was nasty all along and that Cio-Cio-san is imagining the voice and thus fooling herself. If it appears, then your character is rather liberated. If only Butterfly had delayed, then the ecstasy of the starry night might have returned. But then she had already waited three years…

Sometimes Cio-Cio-san hears the voice and then stabs herself. Once again, we have her imagining the sound as a possibility, but we also have the possibility that she is suffering from a form of self-loathing as a result of the rejection. Once again, this approach internalizes Butterfly’s suffering.

In the Valencia production, the orchestral tutti arrives with drawn dagger, but Butterfly turns toward her front door at Pinkerton’s call. She waits for him to show up and recognize her and then kills herself.

The effect is to transform his suicide into an act of defiance. She knows that the child will be taken care of. She has been shunned by her society and by Pinkerton. She is alone and has no future. But now she is also determined that he does not possess her and wants to show her contempt. You will not own me like chattel, he thinks. And so his character transforms from the meek and placid receiver of tragedy into a defiant, if dead, individualist. At least she has asserted her own position. It is different and surprising, which beautifully illustrates that sometimes the most radical transformations are achieved through the details.

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