A Moving and Wonderfully Traditional “Madama Butterfly” by the Virginia Opera

photoCio-Cio-San (Danielle Pastin) and her maid Suzuki (Kristen Choi) in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly.” (Photo Courtesy Virginia Opera)   

These days, it has become common to stage operas as abstract, modernist works. The Virginia Opera’s “Madama Butterfly,” directed by Richard Gammon, takes a much different and traditional path, embracing love, loss, emotion, duty, and despair or, as the Japanese sometimes say, mono no aware – “beauty in sadness.”  References to traditional Japanese culture also abound, helping to increase the contrast between Japanese and American ways.

Legendary opera critic Henry Edward Krehbiel, upon seeing the show some  100 years ago, wrote the following, “Glimpses of Nippon [Japan]—its mountains, waters, bridges, flowers, gardens, geishas; as a foil to their grace and color the prosaic figures of a naval officer and an American Consul.” His words apply equally well to this production, with spring cherry blossom petals falling across the stage and the use of traditional Shinto-inspired Japanese architecture. Even a painted view of the harbor in the distance looks like a woodcut by Japanese artist Hiroshige.

 The story of Puccini’s famous opera revolves around one B.F. Pinkerton, a young officer of the U.S. Navy, who finds himself stationed in Nagasaki, Japan, presumably not long after the Meiji Restoration of 1868.  Pinkerton decides to marry fifteen-year-old Cio-Cio-San, whose name translates roughly as Madame Butterfly. Butterfly is herself of noble Japanese heritage, but her family has fallen on hard times.

While love appears to blossom despite the vast cultural differences between Pinkerton and Butterfly, it soon becomes clear that Pinkerton views the marriage as a something of lark which will entertain him briefly.  He then leaves for the States to marry an American wife, abandoning Butterfly, justifying his faithlessness by assuming that Butterfly will be able to move on as easily as he himself does. Butterfly, however, takes the situation much more seriously. First, after Pinkerton leaves, she bears his son. Yet she also breaks with her family and Japanese tradition to worship the “American God” and tries to adopt American cultural ways in a small house, including displaying an American flag.  

Butterfly waits three long years for Pinkerton’s return, her hope fed by the fact that he has apparently provided modest financial help for her during his absence. Eventually Pinkerton, learning of the existence of his child, does return—bringing with him his American wife, Kate. Tragedy then ensues from Pinkerton’s thoughtless actions, the gravity of which he realizes only belatedly.

Both the musical quality and acting in this production are outstanding. Danielle Pastin is a determined and surprisingly self-confident Butterfly, singing beautifully; this is especially so for her soaring aria in Act II in which her character awaits the return of her absent husband. Kristen Choi, playing Butterfly’s maid Suzuki, also sings wonderfully, as does Catherine Goode, who plays Pinkerton’s American wife, Kate. Mezzo-soprano Choi and coloratura-soprano Goode also do exceptionally well at acting; each sympathetically embodies the traditional values of their characters’ cultures, while also recognizing the difficulty of the current situation. Matthew Vickers, playing the faithless Pinkerton, is also first-rate, as attested to by the audience at the performance that this reviewer attended; despite his excellent performance, he was good-naturedly booed upon taking his bow on stage!  

As detailed above, the staging is excellent. While the cultural backdrop is one that could emphasize the problematic history of nineteenth-century American imperialism or even a simple American-Japanese culture clash, this production appears to recognize the existence of such conflicts but focuses more on timeless themes of faithfulness vs. faithlessness in marriage, custom, and culture, especially when fidelity and loyalty to one may appear to require infidelity to another. These themes are beautifully embodied in the music itself with, for example, the US national anthem woven through programmatic music phrasings to suggest Japan, all conducted movingly by conductor Adam Turner.  

If there is a weak moment in this operatic production, it occurs ironically at its strongest point of the show. This is the famous duet between Pinkerton and Butterfly at the end of Act I, during Pinkerton and Butterfly’s wedding night.  The scene is beautifully sung, but for some reason, Pinkerton and Butterfly break away from each other several times and move to opposite ends of the stage. It is puzzling why this separation occurs. Is it prefiguring their upcoming separation? Or does it signify something else? Given the music and the situation, this would seem to be the characters’ closest and most intimate moment.   

That quibble aside, this production is outstanding in every way and receives this reviewer’s highest recommendation. We must, however, end on a wistful note. Just as in Japanese culture cherry blossoms are seen both as beautiful and as poignant reminders of the ephemeral nature of life due to the speed with which they fade and fall to the ground, “Madama Butterfly,” too, has come and gone from its all-too-short run at the George Mason Performing Arts Center in Fairfax. Happily, it can be enjoyed in Richmond, with upcoming performances on March 29 and 31 at the Dominion Energy Center.

“Madama Butterfly: An Italian Opera in Two Acts” runs through March 31, 2019, at the Dominion Energy Center. Sung in Italian, with English surtitles. For more information see https://vaopera.org/experience-2/madama-butterfly/

 

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About the Author

Mark Dreisonstok
Mark Dreisonstok is a professor, editor, writer, and translator in the Washington, D.C., area. He holds a PhD from Georgetown University and an M.A. from the University of Freiburg, Germany.