Different shades of Puccini's most colourful opera

Wed, Mar 21, 2012, 00:00

It has been called ‘racist’, and is based on a badly outdated play, but Puccini’s ‘Madama Butterfly’ still had Irish fans flocking to two separate productions, writes MICHAEL DERVAN

THE STANDARD reference point for Madame Butterfly is the opera Madama Butterfly by Puccini. It’s not David Belasco’s play, which ran successfully in New York and London, and which initially brought the plight of Cio-Cio San, the Butterfly of the title, to Puccini’s attention. It’s not the story by John Luther Long, on which Belasco had based his play. (This first collaboration between the two, with a true story behind it, was so successful that they would work on no less than five plays together.) And it’s not any of the treatments of the subject that emanated from Hollywood, one of which featured Cary Grant in the role of Pinkerton, the US naval officer who cynically marries and cruelly ditches a 15-year-old Japanese girl, leaving her holding the baby.

I’m not sure that the play would stand much of a chance on the modern stage. Very near the start, Butterfly reproves her maid, Suzuki, saying: “Suzuki, how many time I tellin’ you – no one shall speak anythin’ but those Unite’ State’ languages in these Lef-ten-ant Pik-ker-ton’s house? Once more – an’ I put you outside shoji! . . . That’s one thin’ aeverbody got recomlec’ account it’s ’Merican house – his wife, his maid.”

Cio-Cio San doesn’t get these lines in the opera, but, if she did, I’m sure they would sound much more palatable sung in Italian to Puccini’s music rather than spoken.

The subject matter – a cavalier man in uniform imposing himself through a marriage he believes to be sham on an impressionable foreign girl, even to the point of having her renounce her religion for his – is one of callous exploitation, even before the issue of the abandonment, the child, and the mother’s suicide. Just five years ago Roger Parker, a specialist in Italian opera, was quoted in the Daily Telegraph saying that an authentic production of Puccini’s Butterfly “is a racist production. It has a lot of ideas within it that would be seen in any other circumstances as racist.” And he applied his strictures not just to the words, but also to Puccini’s music, which quotes Japanese material for its exotic flavour.

Parker and others notwithstanding, audiences still love Butterfly, and they love it in Japan just as much as they love it in Dublin, London, or Leeds, where Tim Albery’s Opera North production, seen for three performances at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre last week, originated. I saw the production in Leeds last October, when it was conducted in a fascinating, sharply-lit fashion by Daniele Rustioni and featured the tenor Noah Stewart as Pinkerton, and also the first of the Dublin performances, when it was less-dynamically conducted by Martin Pickard, and Stewart was replaced by Mexican tenor Rafael Rojas (Stewart featured only in the last of the Dublin performances).

Albery’s production (with James Hurley directing the revival) updates the setting by a couple of decades, and suggests inclinations or cultural re-alignments by having the marriage-broker Goro (Daniel Norman), become Westernised, while Sharpless, the US consul assigned to do some of Pinkerton’s dirty work (Peter Savidge), shows his sensitivity to local culture through his Japanese footwear. The setting of the Japanese house with its sliding panels is retained in Hildegard Bechtler’s designs.

This Butterfly is very much Butterfly’s evening. French soprano Anne Sophie Duprels presents a persuasive emotional trajectory from innocence to experience, from girl to woman, and a cultural journey from a constraining Japan she rejects to an America she can only imagine but feistily embraces anyway, before she has her fatal confrontation with her most precious family heirloom, a dagger inscribed with the words “To die with honour when one can no longer live with honour”.

The Dublin-based Lyric Opera presented performances of Butterfly at the National Concert Hall last month, and took their production, directed and designed by Vivian Coates and with Fergus Sheil conducting a reduced RTÉ Concert Orchestra, to the Grand Opera House in Belfast for two nights last week.

Coates leaves the matter of Cio-Cio San’s house to his audience’s imagination, having characters move imaginary panels through gestures in the air. It’s a loss, frankly. He has supernumeraries dressed to look like mummies who deliver and remove props and wave lanterns in slow motion during the Humming Chorus. He has images projected on a screen at the back of the stage – harbour, trees, sunset, cloudy skies, moon – that too often seem to want to explain mood shifts that are already well suggested by the music. And his lighting designer, Alastair Kerr, at times mixes and changes the colouring like there was no tomorrow.

Korean soprano Jee Hyun Lim is a sober, balanced Butterfly, rather hard of tone and with a vibrato that widens uncomfortably under pressure. But her plausible presence and her journey are undermined in a production that fussily seems to want to be doing something all the time. The Belfast audience gave it the kind, rousing reception that Butterfly seems always able to count on. And the work will be back at the beginning of next month, when a touring production by Ellen Kent will be seen in Limerick and Dublin.

Lyric Opera is one of a number of companies which submitted proposals for the Arts Council’s new opera production awards. The council has made its decisions and communicated its offers to the successful applicants, although it has not yet made any formal announcement for a matter of weeks yet. But news of the decisions has been travelling like wildfire, with Lyric Opera receiving funding to present Verdi’s Aida at the Gaiety Theatre later this year.

The largest project to have been offered support is for a new company, Wide Open Opera, founded by Fergus Sheil, to present Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, with the lead roles taken by Irish singers Paul McNamara and Miriam Murphy at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre. The production is being hired in from the Welsh National Opera.

The council has also offered funding to NI Opera to take its Oliver Mears production of Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel on tour south of the border. And the Everyman Palace Theatre has got support for a production of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci in Cork.

It’s a brave round of decisions by the council, not least because two long-established companies actually lost out. Neither Opera Theatre Company, who had pitched to present Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor (in a production hired in from Scottish Opera) nor Wexford Festival Opera, who wanted to present Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment, were offered funding.

The council will shortly face the unenviable task of deciding funding for 2013 before any of the 2012 productions hit the stage. The council still has some way to go to get its house in order when it comes to opera. But who would have thought that the demise of Opera Ireland and the debacle of Irish National Opera, the company that effectively never was, would lead to Dublin’s first Tristan und Isolde in nearly 50 years? And with an Irish Tristan and an Irish Isolde, to boot.