'Madame Butterfly': A Fabrication That Rings True

Washington National Opera's "Madame Butterfly."
Photo by Scott Suchman. Courtesy WNO.
Washington National Opera's "Madame Butterfly."

Talk about opera in any group of people, and it won’t be long before “Madame Butterfly” arrives — a guest of honor who holds a lifetime invitation to the discussion.

“Butterfly” is one of those operas for people who hate opera (or so it goes), along with ”Carmen,” “La bohème” and “The Barber of Seville.” Watching and listening — maybe soaking in — Washington National Opera’s production, it occurred to me that it is perhaps the most operatic of operas, in terms of defining what opera does for aficionados and the general public alike.

This production had plenty of advance acclaim for Jun Kaneko’s often startling, semi-abstract, contemporary and very Japanese set design, which for the most part heightened, defined and simplified, something like a brilliantly modulated voice holding back to better break your heart. I say, “for the most part,” because there were moments where the design — on the move, in the moment — seemed too much of a little thing, like a busy wiggle on a white canvas.

Kaneko’s design allowed the familiar story to play out on a seemingly larger canvas — larger than it was, actually, with characters appearing, moving, never quite still, the lighting and the slight sets implying both depth and intimate fragility, all of which is in direct contrast to Puccini’s overpoweringly emotional music, his gift to the singers and characters.

This is what classical opera, at its best, can do. It is an invitation to faith, to the power of emotion, to the ability on the part of the audience to abandon certain rational ways of thinking. And it does this time and again, whether the setting is Valhalla, 19th-century Japan, Renaissance villas in Italy or Bohemian Paris, whether you are laughing or weeping.

Consider: A young, handsome, dashing, caddish American naval lieutenant with the sterling name of B.F. Pinkerton of the U.S. warship “Abraham Lincoln” desires mightily the affections and use of one Cio-Cio-San (which means butterfly) for an arranged and temporary marriage. Butterfly is a geisha girl, impoverished, with a companion named Suzuki. Thinking — despite the customs she’s aware of — the marriage is for a lifetime, she gives up everything, even her religion, for Pinkerton, who is enraptured by her fragility, her vulnerability.

They “marry,” they have an exquisitely drawn-out and passionate honeymoon night and, not too longer after, he ships out. Butterfly waits, scanning the horizon daily for three years for a ship that will bring him back. She scorns an offer of marriage from a rich suitor that would save her. The American consul arrives with a letter from Pinkerton, who declares he’s not coming back. But, ah, but: She has a son and this will indeed bring him back. A ship docks, Butterfly waits with her son, but Pinkerton does not come to see her. He has a new American wife, who wants Pinkerton’s son. Butterfly faces a life of anguish from which there is only one escape.

Think about this: This is a story about a flag-flying American naval officer and a remarkable young Japanese woman, flaunting but also steeped in tradition with one chance at a life of love. It’s about a clash of East and West, of cultures that have only recently discovered each other, sung in Italian with music by an Italian, music that rarely sounds either Japanese or American (although, if you listen closely, Puccini manages to drop in little riffs of the “Star-Spangled Banner” into the proceedings). In short, “Madame Butterfly,” like most classical operas, is a kind of fabrication. Nevertheless, in the best and even in less-than-the-best of execution it rings emotionally authentic and true.

For that to happen you need not so much a great set as great singers and performers; a sure, imagination-driven conductor; and, let it be said with sentiment or without, an open heart. All of that was more than present in the May 17 production, which featured the second cast with the electrically vibrant young soprano Sae-Kyung Rim making her American debut as Butterfly and a confident, fluent Dimitri Pittas as Pinkerton. These two were held back only by gravity in their grand first-act-closing duet, and Rim was heartbreaking in her eager aria imagining Pinkerton’s return.

Other characters — a prim and sad baritone Trevor Scheunemann as the American consul Sharpless, Bethesda tenor Ian McEuen as the fixer-arranger-pimp, busy as a bee, the steady mezzo-soprano Kristen Choi as Suzuki — declared their presence, but in the end this opera is called “Madame Butterfly.”

It certainly helped to have WNO’s Philippe Auguin conducting. Auguin doesn’t need to present his credentials, as he showed in his phenomenal “Ring Cycle” work, but he and the orchestra have to seize the moment in that long sequence in which Butterfly and her son are waiting in silence for Pinkerton to come ashore (which he doesn’t). Here, Kaneko’s designs — moving parts within moving parts — seemed more like abstractions that needed explaining, where recognition might have helped, but it’s also here where the orchestra captured the moment in waves of powerful music, providing a kind of devastating clarity that helps us make it through the terrible night.

There are four more performances of “Madame Butterfly” at the Opera House: evening performances on Thursday, Friday (the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Performance) and Saturday and a matinee on Sunday, May 21. By hook or crook, seize the moment and find a way.

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Mon, 29 May 2017 09:14:34 -0400

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