Saturday, November 22, 2014

Music Reviews: Madame Butterfly

Madame Butterfly
by Puccini
For some reason I actually was more familiar with the gender bending remake M. Butterfly so it was good to recently see the original in the Detroit Opera House. The original story had much more in common with The Jerry Springer Show than with The Crying Game. When Madame Butterfly first came out it was considered to be quite trashy. So maybe a century from now people will think that Jerry Springer, Howard Stern and Wendy Williams are high art. 

You never know. I was actually surprised to feel some pathos while watching and listening to the opera, particularly during the tragic third act. While some people are able to become intimate with others and keep things on a even keel without serious commitment, other people who engage in the dance of life are like swans. They mate for life and expect their partner to do likewise. Many people think that these characteristics differ between genders but every individual is different. There are men who get one-itis and never ever get over their lost true love who rejected them in some horrible fashion. There are women who are quite comfortable using emotional or physical intimacy to extract things from men while never truly committing to any single man. 

But Madame Butterfly sticks with the more common and familiar tropes of gender expectations regarding which gender is more likely to have "love them and leave them" as a viable if not preferred option and which gender is more likely to stay up at night wondering if someone will call or have concerns about sexual intimacy occurring too soon. 

The story is simple. An American sailor named B.F. Pinkerton is looking to marry a Japanese woman. 

This woman is not really a woman by modern American standards. She's only fifteen. And she's a geisha. There are differences of opinion if this is quite the same thing as an American paid consort or high class (high cost) hooker. 

I have read that a geisha can entertain clients with conversation, music, and dance. Right. Anyway, Pinkerton clearly has only the most superficial attachment to the idea of marrying a Japanese woman. 

It's just something to do to pass the time until his inevitable return to America. He feels that just as he can cancel the contract on his Japanese house at any time he can do the same with a marriage -- with a Japanese woman anyway. The American Consul Sharpless, an older and wiser man, advises Pinkerton to take things more seriously. The young woman, Cio-Cio San (this translates as Butterfly), believes in the sanctity of marriage even though Pinkerton had to pay her marriage broker 100 yen to marry her. 

Pinkerton is pleasantly surprised by Butterfly's beauty and her desperate eagerness to marry him and show her love in any and all ways. She even converts to Christianity to be a proper "American" wife, something that enrages her relatives. The wedding is completed. The new husband and wife retire to their chambers to consummate the marriage. Shortly afterwards Pinkerton leaves. Three years pass. Butterfly's marriage broker is eager to pimp her out again, arrange a marriage to a wealthy Japanese prince. 

Butterfly won't have it because even though under Japanese law abandonment = divorce, Butterfly refuses to believe that Pinkerton has abandoned her. Sharpless has arrived in Nagasaki in advance of Pinkerton's return. Sharpless has a letter from Pinkerton. I bet you know what it reads. 

He starts to read it to Butterfly but when he sees how excited she is to hear from Pinkerton, Sharpless lacks the heart to read the rest. He suggests that Butterfly marry the Japanese prince but she's not having it. She shows Sharpless her son with Pinkerton. Butterfly has named the boy Sorrow. Sharpless says he will tell Pinkerton about his son. When Butterfly sees/hears Pinkerton's ship entering the harbor she and her maid get very excited. 

Butterfly says this is proof that she was right all along and that everyone else was wrong. Pinkerton really does love her and has come to take her to America. She gets all dolled up. She dresses her son in a sailor suit and gives him an American flag to wave. She dances and spreads flowers and cherry blossoms all over the place. She decides to wait for Pinkerton. Ten minutes, no Pinkerton. Two hours, no Pinkerton. Four hours, no Pinkerton. All night, no Pinkerton.

The next morning Butterfly sees Sharpless and an American woman in her garden. There's no way to hide the truth any more. When Butterfly asks who the woman is, she learns that the woman is Pinkerton's wife. 

Pinkerton had briefly been there but left when Sharpless criticized him. He's feeling remorse. But remorseful or not he wants to take his son back to America. Depressed, angered and humiliated Butterfly tells Sharpless that Pinkerton can have their son Sorrow, if he himself comes to get him. She then tells her son not to hate her. A servant takes Sorrow into another room and Butterfly commits hara-kiri using her father's short sword, dying just as Pinkerton returns. This ran just under 3 hours including intermission. 

The image of Butterfly waiting in vain throughout the night was pretty moving although I thought it went on a little too long. I think the performer was just standing there silently for about 10 minutes. This was a decent story, if only because it should remind people to, as King Floyd would say, to handle each other with care. I enjoyed the story more than the music but I tend to like baroque classical music more than any other classical music. And baroque this was not. This version of Madame Butterfly had colorblind casting. 

The opening performance featured Noah Stewart as Pinkerton (tenor) and Inna Los as Butterfly (soprano). Both are pictured above. Although the score is written for a tenor Stewart had a certain meatiness to his tone that made me wonder if he could sing in baritone range or if this could be redone for a baritone. 

His role is almost as thankless as that of Rigoletto's Duke but Stewart injected some real sympathy into what could just be seen as a one note player who tells a naive woman "Hey I got what I needed. Beat it." His regret and shame were real. Similarly Inna Los' reading of Butterfly showed that her suicide could have come as much from pride as from despair. I felt more sympathy for her than contempt. Obviously the libretto is in Italian but translations on the screen were available for us non-Italian speakers. All in all this was an okay show, not magnificent but not bad.

Love duet between Pinkerton and Butterfly on their wedding night
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