By Robert Croan
Puccini’s Madama Butterfly is one of the most popular operas in today’s repertory. It wasn’t always.
The world premiere at Milan’s La Scala Opera, on Feb. 7, 1904, was met with hissing and boos, and had to be withdrawn after a single performance. In May of that year, for a production in Brescia, Puccini made some alterations, dividing the 90-minute Act 2 into two separate acts, and the opera enjoyed a moderate success.
It took three more revisions, however, to reach what has become the standard performing version. Oddly enough, modern-day productions tend to omit the second intermission, to avoid having to pay the orchestra musicians overtime, inadvertently returning to the original two-act format.
The obvious reasons for the opera’s longevity are its appealing tragic heroine and a melodious, colorfully orchestrated score. The eponymous Cio-Cio-San’s aria, “Un bel dì” (“One fine day”), is universally recognizable, while her death scene is one of opera’s five-handkerchief moments, and the love duet that concludes the first act is the most expansive and passionate in all of Puccini – an Italian response, perhaps, to Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.
Sandra Lopez, who will portray the title role in Florida Grand Opera’s production, opening in Miami’s Arsht Center tonight, calls Cio-Cio-San “an old friend.” The New York-born, Florida educated soprano will sing her 50th Butterfly (her ninth production) during the present run.
“I know the places that are voice wreckers, and the places that fit like a glove,” she says. “What’s most rewarding to me is that it’s an incredible emotional journey coupled with sublime music.
“It’s a test of endurance,” Lopez goes on. Once she’s on the stage, Butterfly is almost never off. The emotions go from dramatic to delicate to intimate. I try to show her inner turmoil. I have to pace myself so that I have something left by the end.”
On the negative side, however, the opera’s libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica is openly racist and misogynistic, a remnant of attitudes and outlooks that were accepted and acceptable when the opera was written. It was based on a play by the American David Belasco, in turn taken from a short story by the American John Luther Long. This was all part of a movement known as Japonisme, which exploited the exoticism (through Western eyes) of the opening of Japan to the outside world.
The plot of Madama Butterfly centers on a Japanese geisha girl married to an American sailor who does not take his commitment seriously. He leaves her pregnant, and returns three years later with an American wife who wants their child. At the end, hara-kiri is Cio-Cio-San’s only choice to preserve her honor and improve her child’s future.
To say that this would be politically incorrect today, that it treats women like objects, exonerates the villainous male chauvinist and perpetuates racism, is only too obvious. And despite whatever sympathy we have with the hapless, abused heroine, the opera’s ending remains cloyingly sentimental and trite.
“We still have those elements of racism and misogyny today,” Lopez admits. “Cultural misunderstanding, an unwillingness to look at the consequences of what we do to outsiders. We deliver the wrong messages of who we are. It’s culture for dummies.”
When it comes to the music there’s another anomaly. Madama Butterfly’s highlights are gorgeous, but in the context of the opera they’re few and far between. There are at least 20 minutes of setup before Butterfly makes her entrance, and it’s longer from there to the best parts of the love duet.
Not to mention the unsubtle quotations of “The Star-Spangled Banner” to remind us that Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton is an American – almost as cheesy as the fake orientalisms that pepper the entire score. Puccini was equally clueless about both countries. The magnificent love duet is neither American nor Japanese. The characters express themselves like purebred Italians, and in this Puccini was in his very top form.
The opening of Act 2 includes the immortal “Un bel dì,” then rambles on until the heroine delivers another splendid solo, “Che tua madre,” less familiar but at least as stirring and dramatic. Some more filler, and the scene closes with the exquisite Flower Duet and Humming Chorus. And so on to Act 3, which is less inspired but inevitably moving at its predictable conclusion.
Lopez points out the importance of the stage director in the transition scenes. She credits FGO director E. Loren Meeker with creating a traditional interpretation that draws subtle attention to the supporting characters. “[Meeker] will have a significant line directed to another person than we expect, for example. She uses [the Act 3 trio] as an opportunity for Pinkerton to project his naïveté, rather than showing him as entirely evil.”
Throughout our conversation, the soprano reiterates her love for performing. “People may forget us in a few years, but they will return to Puccini’s music. I’m a musician. I play viola and piano. I try to observe each and every marking in the score.
“I just love music,” is the way soprano Lopez sums it up.
MADAMA BUTTERFLY opens tonight at the Ziff Ballet Opera House in Miami, and repeats Jan. 21, 23, and 26. It travels to the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale on Jan. 30 and Feb. 1. For tickets or more information, call 800-741-1010 or visit www.fgo.org.