Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, one of the three most popular operas in the Italian repertoire, was inspired by the true story of John Luther Long which Puccini discovered during a trip to London and which David Belasco turned into a play. The opera opened in Milan in 1904 where it was a resounding failure. However, after some changes, it successfully reopened three months later in Brescia, under the direction of maestro Arturo Toscanini. This story of a marriage between the American Navy lieutenant Benjamin Pinkerton based in Nagasaki and fifteen year Old Cio-Cio-San, foregrounds the romantic longings of the young girl caught in the grip of an underlying colonial relationship set up by Goro, the slippery marriage broker (tenor Joseph Hu)who had some good moments, and American naval lieutenant Pinkerton, seeking to spend his time with a local girl until he goes back to America to have a “real” marriage.
The libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, based on Belasco’s play, emphasizes the light hearted attitude of Pinkerton who desires the girl but has no long term interest in her and the seriousness with which Butterfly prepares for this marriage. She even renounces her own religion and alienates her family, to show her deep commitment to her husband. The appearance of the ominous knife in Act I which sends us back to the suicide of Butterfly’s father, the cowardly betrayal by her husband who leaves and then returns three years later with a wife, are both heightened by the American couple’s cruel removal of Butterfly’s child, building up this tightly constructed turn of the century melodrama of a mixed marriage, as seen from a European perspective, that is doomed from the outset . Even the love scene at the end of act I, as beautiful as it was, could still be considered, in contemporary terms, a form of statutory rape , given the age of the girl and a more contemporary staging could make a lot more of that complex situation, especially given the way she appears to resist any physical contact until he gently breaks down her resistance as the curtain falls.
Puccini’s inspiring music was at the centre of the evening, as the NAC Orchestra, under Tyrone Paterson’s director took us soaring to the heights of emotion and the depths of despair with its many familiar melodies. Unfortunately, much of the performances did not do justice to the opera and one even had the impression that Mme Shuying Li was in a category of her own, surrounded by a cast whose lesser qualities were emphasized by the star quality of the soprano.
From the very first moments, it was clear something was not right when the voices, from where I was sitting (row F in the orchestra) had difficulty going beyond the orchestra pit. The volume of the music completely obliterated them most of the time but still, it was not the orchestra’s fault because as soon as Butterfly entered the stage, hidden behind her wedding guests, as she sings from far upstage, her clear and powerful soprano voice rang out above the delicate voices of the guests’ chorus, announcing an intense musical and dramatic presence that was going to dominate the evening. From that moment on, the other solo voices evaporated.
Pinkerton, as played/ sung by Tenor Antoine Bélanger whose tenor voice is fine but weak and passionless, added a measure of discomfort to this body that seemed to be unable to inspire any kind of emotional or vocal presence in spite of his blond hair, good looks and spiffy white uniform. The final love scene in Act I that follows the wedding – “What a beautiful night” – was orchestrated with great sensitivity . Pinkerton’s beautiful Cio-Cio-San, with the expressive arm movements and delicate hands, slips his jacket down over his shoulders. These moments of stage tenderness build into sexual tension as he moves his hands haltingly over her but the impression is rather strange because although she was performing a timid young girl who hesitated to give herself until her new husband showed her his love, the soprano, actually appeared to be completely in charge both physically and vocally! The dynamics of that scene seemed curiously unbalanced.
Acts II and III (compressed into a single act) were more successful because Sharpless the American Consul (Baritone James Westman) and Pinkerton are absent most of the time. Thus, Butterfly was free to take over the stage, and perform her fiercely obsessive optimism, her hope that her husband would return, and ultimately her despair. She incarnated Puccini’s romantic tendencies, enhanced by the theatrical construction of the libretto and the composer’s sense of continuous melodies, a flowing musical discourse that replaces the spoken word. As the soprano wrapped herself in her flowing kimonos, she also breathed the music in a way that made it her very own. She did have a most suitable partner in her servant Suzuki, sung by the extremely talented Arminè Kassabian whose rich mezzo soprano tones embellished by her strength as an actor, allowed a real dialogue of voices to take place. Together they struck a good balance especially on the upper notes; take for example the duet when they are tossing g flower petals around the stage preparing the house for Pinkterton’s return,the voices blended beautifully and Mme Kassabian held her own very well. The Imperial commissioner who officiated the wedding ceremony captured the ritual order of the experience (Bass Bryan Wehrle) and the enraged Bonze (bass Valarian Ruminski ) was a heightened theatrical interlude, and a figure that inspired some real emotion from Pinkerton who threw him out of the house.
Two names are mentioned in the programme for the children performing Butterfly’s boy “Trouble”. The programme did not say who was on stage opening night but the little person was charming and did exactly what he/she was told to do without upstaging the adults – obviously a natural!
The set, brought in from the Boston Lyric Opera was minimalist and appeared to be a bit too small for the stage of Southam Hall. It represented a large traditional Japanese interior with sliding doors that allowed the audience to see shadows of mouvements outside the dwelling. This would not have seemed so blandly neutral if the lighting design had taken over more responsibility for heightening the drama in many more subtle ways. There is certainly much more to say about this performance which left me on an an emotional high after Butterfly’s tragic suicide, yet,this performance is certainly not one of Opera Lyra’s most memorable productions. Only the presence of Soprano Shuying Li makes it all worthwhile.
Madama Butterfly continues April 19, 21, 23, and 26 at the National Arts Centre. Pre performance chats are in at 7pm in English (23-26) and in French (21) in the Mezzanine of the NAC.
Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini
A PRODUCTION OF OPERA LYRA
Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.
Tyrone Paterson conducted the NAC Orchestra
Chorus Master Laurence Ewashko
Stage director François Racine
Lighting designer Stephen Ross
Scenery from the Boston Lyric Opera
Costumes provided by Malabar.
Antoine Bélanger B.F. Pinkerton
Joseph Hu Goro, the marriage broker
Arminé Kassabian Suzuki
James Westman Sharpless the American Consul
Shuying Li Cio-Cio-San
Gabariella Grynspan and Anton Hofstaetter Trouble
Valerian Ruminski The Bonze
Brian Wehrle Imperial Commissioner
Gene Wu Prince Yamadori