Madama Butterfly, or America as the marital rights utopia

Butterfly

Madama Butterfly at the COC. Seen October 15, 2014. Tickets & more info

The libretto of Madama Butterfly is impossible to love, but the sad fact of the matter is that the music of this opera is probably Puccini’s most sophisticated score, least emotionally manipulative, least musical theatre, least cheddar. There are some exceptional musical moments, like the orchestral interlude that expresses the psychological state of Cio-Cio San during the night of the long wait for the just returned Pinkerton to come to her, and the music in just about any scene with her son and with Suzuki. (Conductor was Patrick Lange.) It’s a solid, composed through musical piece that doesn’t insult intelligence and could be enjoyed more if listened to rather than watched staged.

Unless something radical is done with its staging, that is. And in the greatest number of productions nothing radical is done, this COC revival of the Brian Macdonald production included. (When I asked Patricia Racette about the most unusual production she’s ever sung Cio-Cio San in, she cited Bob Wilson’s, the laser-precision of which she ended up enjoying very much—and I can absolutely see how a Wilsonian reductio might actually work in this case.) Macdonald opted for the traditional-minimalist aesthetic, with sets in near monochrome, the moving Japanese walls repurposed for different scenes, and a soft-focused and discreetly changing vista of the Japanese landscape as the backdrop (set and costume design by Susan Benson). The costumes are a bit more extravagant, the kimonos elaborate and the wigs somewhat limiting the movements of the two female protagonists.

The libretto is a cringe-fest, yes, but it has moments worth pondering. The US appears in it—to the Cio-Cio San—as the land where the rights of married women run a considerably larger gamut than in her own culture. She is indeed stuck between the rock of a local marriage negotiator / pimp (probably a man from her extended family) and the hard place of a deceiving American sex tourist (this excellent characterization of Pinkerton I owe to John Gilks). There is an extended conversation in the opera in which Butterfly argues that husbands in the US can’t just divorce their wives on a whim, and that if they try, the judges laugh them out of court. An illusion—I doubt marital rights of women in the US were particularly extensive in 1904—but the US appears and reappears in the opera not only as a place breeding the jingoistic, myopic, greedy Pinkertons but also as a utopia of marital rights, and of a different kind of citizenship. In many ways, Madama Butterfly is about the topics as contemporary the mail order brides, and the compromises that the women in the low-income countries make in order to be able to emigrate to the wealthier places where they perceive more opportunities awaiting. Whether this has been tackled in any previous productions and how it can be approached in future ones, remains to be seen.

Patricia Racette in her signature role was not a naïve flower but a conscious and determinate Cio-Cio San, the voice strong and not at all maidenly (I mean this as a compliment), the vibrato well-controlled, the timbre of the bright, gleaming bronze. She knows the role inside out and it shows. I always enjoy Elizabeth Deshong’s dark mezzo and hearing her again at the COC is a treat. Her acting was also good. The two main men—Stefano Secco as Pinkerton and Dwayne Croft as Sharpless—left nothing to be desired, each possessing a distinctive colour, solid projection and control, beauty of tone and precision in phrasing. (At the curtain call, Secco/Pinkerton had to endure the boos from the audience that seemed to be forgetting that we were not in a panto. Seriously, Toronto?!)

In summary: one of my least favourite operas, in a production that affords too much respect to the literal text, but musically an interesting work that the cast, the conductor and the orchestra at the COC do justice, and that deserves more radical, directly contemporary stagings if it is to be saved for a thinking opera goer.

L-R: Elizabeth Deshong, Patricia Racette and Dwayne Croft. Photo credit Michael Cooper.

7 thoughts on “Madama Butterfly, or America as the marital rights utopia

  1. They booed Secco? Good grief! Though actually it shows more animation and engagement than on opening night where the audience seemed to be extremely emotionally detached from the whole thing. Certainly that’s how i felt and so, apparently, did Glenn Summi. I’m going again on Sunday to see Kelly K. Maybe she will inject more life into it.

  2. What has struck me most about reactions to this production is that almost without exception all reviews have highlighted the horribly misogynistic and jingoistic aspects of the plot, questioning just how we can keep presenting it, especially as you mention, in a straightforward manner. It feels like we’ve sort of turned a corner with this piece at least in Toronto in 2014. You call the libretto cringe worthy and I get what you mean but actually don’t you feel that in his way Puccini wasn’t giving Pinkerton any chance to be sympathetic and that the libretto reflects this? Personally, as much as the first act contains great music, I can’t wait for it to be over. Pinkerton and his America are painted in such a bad light the whole act makes me squirm & I feel the composer was quite intentional with this.
    Glad you’ve highlighted the theme of Butterfly’s idealization of marriage in America – I could see a director going with this, perhaps with flashes to an “ideal” American 50s household where things really aren’t great – a la Madmen. It’s probably been done!
    I saw the Kaduce cast and the tenor, Care was also booed. I *really* hate that (and he sang very well). It actually diffuses how we should feel turning the whole thing into a joke as the boos are always accompanied by titters of laughter.

    1. I’ve been thinking about that a lot–whether the libretto actually takes wholeheartedly her side–and I just couldn’t see it, unless the staging really emphasizes this aspect somehow. (By presenting Pinkerton as a rotten mercenary, a criminal, a pedophile? It may have to be that explicit–the Bieito kind of explicit–for the trad audience to notice.) Pinkerton gets to keep the air of bourgeois respectibility and he is a navy officer in uniform, from a country where military figures are respected first, questioned rarely. He also gets to go on living, and gets to keep the kid. He is not punished in any way, not even by a few moments of self-scrutiny.

      The panto booing… I feel sorry for the singers. An awful thing to do.

      What would you say Kaduce brought to the role? I’m curious about her take on Butterfly.

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