Madama Butterfly: Stars Spangle Proudly at the Met

Dear Readers:

Here the latest installment in my ever popular series of Opera reviews, based on the “Met Live in HD” series.

Japanese print of Commodore Perry

This time around it was Anthony Minghella’s creepy yet powerful production of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”.  Minghella, who died in 2008, conceived this traditional, yet also distinct version of the work,  his main contribution being a small army of mimes and puppeteers.   Minghella derived his inspiration from Japanese bunraku  theater, described as a type of Japanese “puppet opera”.  Butterfly’s toddler son is, in fact, portrayed by a very spooky looking Japanese puppet boy, operated by three discretely silent, but clearly visible, ninja-clad puppeteers.

The geisha “Butterfly” and her creepy baby.

This is a matter of taste, but personally, I didn’t like the puppet boy.  The rest of the puppetry and the mimes and dancers — yes, I thought it was effective.  This wasn’t just “exotica” – it gave weight and due respect to Japanese culture.  It added real value to the core work.  But the puppet boy… well, that was a bit much.  Although, on the other hand, what are the other options for a casting director?  The role requires a child of age around three to sit still and behave himself on-stage for up to a full hour.  He doesn’t have to sing, dance, or even say lines.  But he does have to show some semblance of acting and not fidget.  Not too many kids around like that.  So, hire some smart-alec Hollywood prodigy who already has several commercial and sitcom appearances under his belt?  Or maybe just go with the bunraku puppet boy….  At least the puppet never misses his mark.

Story Outline

The story is probably familiar to most, so I will just outline briefly.  It is the tale of an (unequal) clash of cultures.  Cio-Cio-San (in this production portrayed brilliantly by Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais), is a young Japanese girl from a good family that has fallen on hard times.  Her father had displeased the Mikado and was forced to commit harikari, using a special dagger.  The dagger passed on to Cio-Cio-San, it is shown to us in Act I, and by Chekhov’s Law, we know it will be used again in Act III.  By Cio-Cio-San herself, whose suicide is portrayed with brutal artistry and the assistance of mimes.

With her once-noble family suddenly falling into poverty, the 15-year-old Cio-Cio-San becomes a geisha, using the stage name “Butterfly”.  In this capacity, she meets an older man, an American engaged in gunboat diplomacy and temporarily stationed in Japan, his name is Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton.

Not sure about Pinkerton’s age.  During the intermission, in which Met Opera Live host Deborah Voigt  interviewed tenor Roberto Alagna, the latter (who, by the way, was in very fine voice yesterday), speculated that his character Pinkerton might be only around 22-24 years old.  Alagna went on to feebly excuse Pinkerton’s bad behavior:  It is all due to his youth and arrogance.  Alagna as an aside made a canny comparison between Pinkerton and current American soldiers sent to such places as Afghanistan and Iraq.  In other words, they are young, they are horny, they don’t know how to comport themselves in a foreign culture.

Italian tenor Roberto Alagna

Alagna went on to remark, that he himself has a 24-year-old daughter, and that he most definitely does not approve of Pinkerton’s treatment of Cio-Cio-San.

Lieutenant Pinkerton, who met Butterfly at a geisha party, falls in lust with the girl and wants to set her up as his mistress.  She will help him to wile away his time while he is stationed in this backwater.  But apparently geisha culture is more complicated than Westerners think.  The geishas are not simply prostitutes.  Some rules must be obeyed.  Pinkerton is forced to go through a fake “wedding ceremony” before he can get his paws on Cio-Cio-San.  The American treats it like a big joke and even brags how he will marry a “real American woman” once he gets back to the States.  Meanwhile, the one decent American character, Ambassador Sharpless, keeps warning Pinkerton not to play with the girl’s emotions.  Sharpless can see already that Cio-Cio-San lives in a world of self-delusion almost equal to that of Tennessee Williams’ Blanche DuBois.  “Butterfly” believes that her “wedding” was real, and that she is actually married to Pinkerton.  Worse still, she believes that he will take her away to the States, that she will become an American girl, and live happily ever after with her Yankee Prince Charming.

The Colonized Mind

Full disclosure:  Me being a huge opera buff, especially of Italian opera, and yet before yesterday I never saw a full production of “Madama Butterfly”.  Hence, I never realized what a powerful piece of anti-imperialist “propaganda” this work actually is.  Again, I have no idea what Puccini’s political views were, or what was his intent here.  Possibly he was just following where the material itself led him.  Fact is, both the music and the libretto make it crystal clear that Butterfly’s demise is a product of American imperialism.  And frankly, I was surprised and impressed, to see such a clearly anti-American message in this work.  And yet, it is also crystal clear that colonialism is a two-way street.  The colonists want to colonize.  But the colonized themselves are often complicit in their own colonization.

Pinkerton’s “real” wife – the American woman, Kate.

Cio-Cio-San is a perfect example of this.  This victim deserves quite a lot of “blame”.  She converts to Christianity, renounces her own culture and family, dresses her little puppet child in a navy costume and puts a little American flag in its hand.  Why?  Because she desperately wants to become a real American woman.

Let’s think of it this way:  Colonization of a country by another country, is a relationship.  It is not a healthy relationship, but it is still a relationship.  It can be like a marriage at times; except that marriage implies a more equal relationship, like that which Pinkerton enjoys with his “real” wife, Kate. Maybe think of colonization as more like a “fake marriage”, in which the colonizer gets to have his mistress as long as he wants her, dump her when he is bored.  He gets all the perks, without being burdened by any liability.

In a different production, with a “real boy”. Mommy blindfolds her little American angel before stabbing herself in the throat.

On the other hand, who can really blame Cio-Cio-San?   It can suck to live in a Third World country.  Japanese culture doesn’t suck, but Butterfly’s situation in life, sucked.  Her relatives abused her, just saw her a tool — marry her off to a rich guy, solve all their problems.  No wonder she wanted to become a “war bride” and run off to America with her beau.  If he had been the kind of man she wanted him to be, then that would have actually solved all of her material problems, no doubt whatsoever.

But no…  A happy Cinderella ending was not to be her fate.  Pinkerton abandons Butterly.  He sails back to America and marries a “real American woman”, Kate.  Who actually turns out to be a very nice person.  Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Pinkerton, his Japanese mistress gave birth to a boy whom she appropriately names “Trouble”, and the two of them, mom and boy, spend the next three years waiting, in vain, for Daddy’s return.

Now if Butterfly only had the stamina to go on living, she would have learned a valuable lesson in life:  Never trust American diplomats.  In fact, it is the “good American” here, Ambassador Sharpless, who comes up with the idea that Butterfly must give up her son.  When he first learns that she has a child, he asks her, “Is it really Pinkerton’s?”

“Can you doubt it?” Butterfly replies.  “Have you ever seen a Japanese boy with blue eyes?”

“Operation Baby Lift”: After losing Vietnam war, Americans kidnap Vietnamese children and bring them to America.

Saved by an iris!  Peering into the soulless (er… black) eyes of the puppet boy, Sharpless nods, Yep, it’s an American kid all right.   And then this nice guy, this decent guy, Sharpless, decides that the baby must be given up to his father.  To be raised in America, as an American.  By step-mom Kate.

Harvesting orphans – the ultimate act of colonialism!


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7 Responses to Madama Butterfly: Stars Spangle Proudly at the Met

  1. Ryan Ward says:

    In general terms, the theme of romantic relationships in colonial contexts is one that hasn’t gotten as much attention in literature as it deserves. When it has been addressed, it’s produced some great results (this opera, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, Marguerite Duras’ L’Amant, etc.) Unfortunately, the relentless ugliness of contemporary identity politics means that it’s only a very brave writer or composer who would touch the topic now. The fuss over Miss Saigon (which is really just a popularized version of Madame Butterfly set in Vietnam) is a good example of how impossible it’s become to deal with these kinds of themes without generating a bunch of fruitless and point-missing controversy. It’s too bad, since the theme remains fairly contemporary right up to the present.


    • yalensis says:

      Dear Ryan:
      That is a very good point. I think it is true that these themes were addressed much more honestly and with more authenticity by writers and artists of the past. Nowadays it would be more tabu to have an honest discussion.
      Which is why the classics are still the classics.


  2. colliemum says:

    Thanks for that review – from the truly weird puppet to the end. I wonder (this is pure speculation, of course!) if Puccini took up the subject of colonialism and used the US/Japan rather than point the finger at that powerful neighbour across the mountains – Imperial Germany – which at the time of his writing the opera was desperately scrabbling about for colonies, somewhere, anywhere, to compete with the British Empire. And given that Gilbert and Sulivan’s ‘Mikado’ had been so successful for the previous decade or so, the Far Eastern settings for Madame Butterfly might have been seen as useful.

    One niggle: it’s ‘hara-kiri” or ‘seppuku’, and that knife is a wakizashi:
    I confess I have become fascinated by the Samurai code and by the sword (katana) and knife they alone were ‘allowed’ to wear …



    • yalensis says:

      Wow! Thanks for the correction on the knives, colliemum.
      (And please remind me never to become your enemy, since you are such an expert in these matters.)

      I can never remember if “hara-kiri” only refers to de-gutting oneself like a fish. Cio-Cio San doesn’t do that. She takes the knife, holds the tip directly over the carotid artery in her neck, and then plunges it in quite expertly, as if she had done this a hundred times before. Death is mercifully quick, but leaves an awful bloody stain on the floor.

      Anyhow, that is an interesting speculation on Puccini’s intent. I know nothing about the back-story, or even much about Puccini himself.

      As I mentioned in my comment on Mark’s blog, this weekend they are doing the live-streaming version of “Roberto Devereux”. I saw some previews, and it looks to be quite a corker of a show.
      Along with Sondra Radvanovsky as Queen Elizabeth and Elīna Garanča as her mezzo-soprano lady-in-waiting, it also stars the same two male stars as in Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers”. Namely, Matthew Polenzani as Devereux, and Mariusz Kwiecien, I think as the Duke (or Earl) of Nottingham.

      I listened to a radio interview with the two males on the opera channel, and Mariusz is hysterical. He was saying that the two men have exactly the same relationship that they do in “Pearl Fishers” – namely his supposedly “best friend” Matthew is always betraying him and trying to steal his girl! (In this case, the girl is Elīna rather than the quite elderly Queen, at this point.)


      • colliemum says:

        Interesting interview! Isn’t it, well, strange, how themes/sujets from British History seems to engage the fertile imagination of Italian composers? Suitably changed, of course, but one does wonder why, given the wonderful turmoil of Italian History, with courts and all, they need to compose Lucia de Lammermoor, or this Donizetti one, or indeed Norma.
        Hara-kiri is indeed the ripping open of one’s body, with two cuts, one horizontal, one vertical, after having written a ‘death poem’, and all extremely ceremonial. To save the honour of the hara-kiri-ist, a friend is required dos and behind him and behead him once the cuts are made, so he doesn’t scream in pain. And for that beheading, the katana is used.
        I vaguely remember that ladies aren’t required to disembowel themselves when committing hara-kiri.
        As for knives and swords, it’s more the whole concept of Bushido and the samurai which I find fascinating. Mind, the sword (katana) is totally awesome!
        In private, however, I rely on my furry Princess who will use her teeth. She’s awesome as well!


        • yalensis says:

          As for why Italian composers like subjects from English history – well, I suppose they are just a sucker for a ripping good story.
          A couple of seasons back I saw the Met’s production of Rossini’s La Donna del Lago.
          Which is based on a Scottish theme, a story by Sir Walter Scott.
          It is a brilliant opera, all sung in gorgeous bel canto, AND a ripping story to boot.

          One of the highpoints is the “terzetto”, in which Ellen’s would-be suitors, both of them coloratura tenors (King James V and the rebel chief Rodrigo) practically spit high-C’s at each other.
          Uberto (=King James in disguise) wins the duet by tossing out a High D.

          But in the end, Ellen rejects both tenors and runs off with the other girl (well, a mezzo-soprano wearing trousers, i.e., Malcolm the Highlander).


          • colliemum says:

            Thanks for that – I do love the internet, enabling us to watch/listen to such productions. Mind you – the Italian ‘take’ on Highlander costume is a bit, ahem, un-Scottish, colour-wise … but that’s the only niggle I have.
            Great stuff.
            Good old Sir Walter Scott – where would opera, where would the House of Windsor be without him?
            Lord Byron however … but that’s quite another story!


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