Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is a very well-known, much loved, and indeed popular opera. The genre is replete with femmes fatales, Butterfly, Tosca, Manon, Carmen, Lucía, Violetta and Katya, just for example, who get it in the end, so one might think there is nothing much to see in terms of new perspectives when such a familiar work with such a well-worked theme is staged. Opera lovers, however, will confirm that there most definitely is!
Audiences tend to fall into two distinct groups, those for whom any diversion from their own preconceptions signifies the end of civilization, and those for whom radical interpretation is a welcome challenge to the establishment. There is another perspective, however, in which directors, via minor changes to staging, can completely transform the way we understand these often rigidly interpreted stories. Such was the success of Emilio Lopez, the director of the recent production in Valencia. His 2021 staging of Butterfly will be broadcast on Opera Vision on Sunday 19 December and will be available through that website for some weeks. It is successful on several levels, one of which is revelatory.
Let’s start with the term verismo. That certainly applied to the way Puccini approached his work and it implies that the setting should not be palatial and that characters might be depicted as everyday folk. We may assume that the composer never experienced the mid-19 century Japan of the opera’s setting, so if verismo applies to Butterfly, then it applies principally on an ideological level. That said, the opera’s potential for costume drama usually so overcomes designers and directors that even recognition of verismo in the result is obscured. In other words, everything gets pretty before it can become credible. And it is verismo that suffers.
In act one, Cio-Cio-san describes how she is from a poor home and became a geisha because of lack of opportunity. The ceremonial dagger which she eventually uses to take her own life was presented to her father by the Mikado with request that he use it on himself. We must assume that Butterfly’s family were thus already in disgrace. She then compounds this disgrace by rejecting her cultural and religious traditions, an act that uncle Bonze condemns, prompting her friends and community to reject her, all except Suzuki of course. The fact that Puccini then takes us into the love scene of the wedding night often obscures this rejection. In the Valencia production, a backdrop that had featured cherry blossom becomes the starry night of the couple’s ecstasy, but it does so by melting like celluloid in an overheated projector, implying that the comforting blossoms of the past have been destroyed. The starry night persists into acts two and three, but thus becomes a symbol of continued isolation and of Butterfly’s insistence, nay imperative to live in the past.
Cio-Cio-san often comes across as a meek and thus stereotypical Asian woman, who has never even practiced the word “boo” with geese nearby. As a result, she often becomes the single-, even simple-minded naïve devotee of Pinkerton, despite the fact that, as a geisha, she must have had experience of the fly-by-night sailor. The supplicant image endears her to audiences, perhaps, but strips her of the identity and individuality she certainly has, otherwise she would never have pursued her own, private wishes so single-mindedly.
The point is she does not have a great deal of choice. She is poor. She is a geisha. She has done her job. Pinkerton offers her a way out, which she, perhaps naïvely accepts. But once she has made the commitment, she cannot go back. She wants to please him, but by doing so she suffers the rejection of her own community. But she has to go through with the risk.
In Valencia, Emilio Lopez recognizes that Cio-Cio-san is living in poverty. Ignored by Pinkerton for three years and still rejected by her own community, she and Suzuki live amidst decay and grime. The temptation to portray Butterfly still in full, opulent geisha regalia makes no sense and is avoided convincingly in this production. Suzuki confirms this poverty in the libretto. What too often comes across as blind faith on Butterfly’s part now becomes necessity, imposed by her community because of her rejection by and of them. She can’t go back. She has no other option. This is an element of verismo in the opera which directors often tend to overlook.
But in this Valencia production, the real surprise comes at the end. Pinkerton has returned but has refused to see Butterfly. He storms off because he cannot take it anymore… He does want the child, however. His new American wife and Sharpless are told by Butterfly to come back in half an hour to take the child. Note that Pinkerton has not heard her request.
Butterfly has her own plans, however, plans that involve using that ceremonial weapon her father used to kill himself. The elements are clear. Butterfly kills herself, the voice of Pinkerton returning is heard. Or perhaps not…
The usual way to treat this is to have Butterfly stab herself on the orchestral tutti and then for the sound of Pinkerton’s voice to be heard as she dies. If Pinkerton is not seen, it could be argued that he really was nasty all along and that Cio-Cio-san is imagining the voice, still therefore deceiving herself. If he does appear, then his character is rather let off the hook. If only Butterfly had delayed, then the ecstasy of the starry night might just have returned. But then she had already waited three years…
Sometimes Cio-Cio-san hears the voice and then stabs herself. Again, we have her imagining the sound as a possibility, but we then also have the possibility that she is suffering a form of self-loathing the result of the rejection. Again, this approach internalizes Butterfly’s suffering.
In the Valencia production, the orchestral tutti arrives with dagger drawn, but Butterfly turns to face the entrance to her house when she hears Pinkerton’s call. She waits for him to appear and recognize her and then she kills herself.
The effect is to transform her suicide into an act of defiance. She knows the child will be cared for. She has been rejected by her society and by Pinkerton. She is alone and has no future. But she is now also determined that he will not possess her, and she wants to demonstrate her contempt. You will not possess me as chattel, she thinks. And thus, her character is transformed from the meek and mild recipient of tragedy into a defiant individualist, albeit a dead one. At least she has asserted her own position. It’s different and surprising, which illustrates beautifully that sometimes the most radical transformations are achieved via detail.