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