Opera North dazzles on opening night
Heartbreak. Butterfly's of course. And yours, as you practically weep from your seat during her famous aria, Un bel di vedremo, in Act II, sung with a perfect melding of voice and drama by artist Jinwon Park. You can feel the intensity of her yearning as she dreams of the day when her American husband will return to her. That she is alone in her belief only ratchets up the misery.
Act I introduces Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton (Michael Brandenburg), an American stationed in Japan who demonstrates his lack of regard for the Japanese culture from which he holds himself apart. He has taken a 999-year lease on a local apartment, a legal arrangement from which he is free to release himself each month if he so desires. His glee about this flexibility foreshadows his views of his impending marriage to Cio-Cio-San, or Butterfly, a 15-year old geisha whom he has purchased for a mere 100 yen. He's playing around; she is in it for keeps and believes he is too. She sacrifices culture, religion, and a disapproving family. As Pinkerton is awaiting Butterfly's arrival for the wedding ceremony, he confides to his friend Sharpless (SeungHyeon Baek) that he dreams of his own future with "a real American wife." Marital bliss occurs for Butterfly, but is short-lived as Pinkerton departs soon for America, assuring her of his return.
Three years later, in Act II, it is apparent that no one believes that Pinkerton is coming back except the faithful, now 18 year-old, Butterfly. As Pinkerton had explained in Act I, men in the United States pin butterflies to boards to prevent them from flying away. Butterfly now finds herself pinned, with dwindling resources. Sharpless shows up with a letter from Pinkerton, who had asked him to locate Butterfly to soften the impending blow of his faithlessness. He and Butterfly's maid, Suzuki, (Augusta Caso) can't bring themselves to tell Butterfly the truth. She continues to live in her alternate reality.
One of the most poignant of the opera's scenes is a wordless one in which Butterfly kneels on a pillow, her eye trained on the port to catch the moment of Pinkerton's arrival. It's a lengthy scene, originally conceived by Puccini to last a full quarter-hour. Butterfly is motionless, steadfast in her gaze, her patience, and her conviction that a joyous reunion is about to occur. Behind her, the action is only in the lighting (John Bartenstein's) that shows the passage of the evening into night and then to dawn.
Tension builds. If you are unfamiliar with this opera, you wonder about and long for a resolution. If you do know the opera, you realize that Butterfly is moving slowly and inexorably toward an unhappy fate. Puccini said he wanted to keep the public "nailed to their seats." This production, under the direction of Russell Treyz, has done that.
Madama Butterfly belongs to Park, who is onstage virtually throughout. Her Butterfly is both naive and genuinely in love, and she plays the role with authenticity. Her voice is simply magical. Pinkerton is more or less odious, depending on whether you see him as a totally self-absorbed cad or just a clueless one, though Puccini himself apparently did not see him as a sympathetic character. Brandenburg, possessed of a strong and clear tenor, plays his part thoroughly, making Pinkerton more than a cardboard villain. As one critic wrote of this part: "we either know someone like Pinkerton, or maybe some of us have been him."
Actions have consequences. We hurt people with our ignorance and neglect. We get hurt when we trade common sense for our much-preferred delusions (though Butterfly is forgiven for her youth on this count.) Some see Madama Butterfly as a tale about a clash of cultures, but scholar Arthur Groos, after studying Puccini's many revisions (there were five versions of the opera), saw it in more personal terms, as "a contradiction between the principals' fantasies about each other and reality. Pinkerton's adventurism has brought about this mock relationship; and Butterfly's trusting heart will embellish it."
Go. It's an altogether transporting opera and the sumptuous production you'd expect from Opera North. It will break your heart in the best way.
Madama Butterfly is playing at the Lebanon Opera House in Lebanon NH on Friday August 11 at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday, August 13 at 5:00 p.m. Click here to access Opera North's website for information and tickets. Sung in Italian with English supertitles.
SOME RANDOM INTERESTING FACTS ABOUT MADAMA BUTTERFLY:
1) It started out as a one-act play by David Belasco. Puccini saw it in London's West End and raced backstage to ask Belasco's permission to turn it into an opera. " I agreed at once,” Belasco said, “because it was impossible to discuss arrangements with an impulsive Italian who has tears in his eyes and both arms around your neck.”
2) Puccini's Madama Butterfly was first performed in 1904 at La Scala. It bombed. Puccini rewrote parts of it.
3) In May 2017, Heartbeat Opera in New York City decided to present Madama Butterfly by starting the production with Act II. Butterfly was already alone and awaiting Pinkerton's return. Act I then became a dream sequence to explain how she came to this point in her life. It also included an ambiguous (!) ending.
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Susan B. Apel, writer, ArtfulEdge