PUCCINI: Madama Butterfly. Cio-Cio San (Yunah Lee). Lt. Pinkerton (Dominick Chenes). Sharpless (Michael Chioldi). Suzuki (Mika Shigematsu). Goro (Doug Jones). Stage Director: Garnett Bruce. Lighting Designer: James Sale. Austin Opera Chorus and Orchestra/Richard Buckley. Long Center for the Performing Arts. Austin, TX. April 29, 2017.
One might think that the story of Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly is a little dated; the opera, composed in 1904, is based on a play by David Belasco written a few years earlier, and concerns the seduction of a Japanese geisha (Cio-Cio San) by an American sailor (Lt. Pinkerton). Pinkerton marries her but, unbeknownst to Cio-Cio San, he has no intention of keeping his marriage vows. His leave over, Pinkerton departs. Cio-Cio San waits patiently for him to return, which he does after three years – with his American wife – to take custody of his child, born to Cio-Cio San in his absence. Cio-Cio San gives up the child and commits suicide.
But that was then and this is now. Such things don’t happen anymore. But they did happen again during the American occupation of the same country after World War II. Still later, there were numerous such cases during the Vietnam War. But the Vietnam War ended in 1975, more than 40 years ago. Again, almost ancient history, you might say. Unfortunately, the abuses depicted by Puccini in Madama Butterfly are still very much with us: men betraying women, men raping underage girls – Cio-Cio San is 15-years-old in the opera – foreigners ignoring and misunderstanding other cultures, and government officials acting as enablers. All of these issues and more are vividly brought to life in Madama Butterfly; in short, the opera is as meaningful to modern audiences as it was to audiences in 1904.
To be sure, the opera endures not only for its social messaging but also for the beauty of its music and Puccini’s masterful realization of the human drama. With Korean soprano Yunah Lee as Cio-Cio San and Richard Buckley in the pit, Austin Opera had all it needed to guarantee superb musical results. Nearly every role in this production was well cast. The traditional set, originally designed by John Gunter for the Los Angeles Opera, functioned beautifully with Nagasaki Bay in the background and a cutaway house with a well-planned series of levels and entrances as a focal point for all the action. Incidentally, Madama Butterfly is one of the few full-length operas that has a single set for the entire work, which makes it one of the most economical to produce.
Stage director Garnett Bruce deserves enormous credit for coaxing such convincing and subtly-nuanced performances from his singers. The American consul Sharpless is often portrayed as a weak and ineffectual functionary, but in this production baritone Michael Chioldi was a highly sensitive participant in the drama, clearly devastated by what was taking place. Using his eyeglasses as an effective prop, each gesture meaningfully communicated his pain. His body language spoke volumes. His voice was rich and expressive.
It took tenor Dominick Chenes (Pinkerton) a while to warm up in his opening scene but after that he sang with power and a fine command of phrasing, capturing both his character’s insensitivity and insincerity in the first act and his remorsefulness in the last.
Indubitably, the star of this production was Yunah Lee (Cio-Cio San), who stopped the show with her “Un bel di” and broke our hearts with the grace and dignity of her performance. She had power when she needed it, and made the most of the quiet moments with phrasing of exquisite tenderness.
The Austin Opera Orchestra has never sounded better in my experience and Richard Buckley guided them through this familiar score with a sure sense of the right tempi and ideal balances with his singers. (Incidentally, has anyone noticed that the fugal opening of Act One bears more than a passing resemblance to the Overture to Smetana’s opera The Bartered Bride?)
It never ceases to amaze me how astutely Puccini uses the Japanese musical elements without descending into pastiche. And what a stroke of genius to come up with a humming chorus to link the second and third acts, as Cio-Cio San waits patiently through the night for the return of her beloved American sailor.
Madama Butterfly remains a great opera on many levels. I have no doubt that audiences will continue to be moved by Puccini’s inspired music and by Cio-Cio San’s terrible fate for years to come, especially if they are fortunate enough to encounter performances as well-conceived and as eloquently produced as this one.