Opera in 3 Acts | Composer: Giacomo Puccini | Librettists: Luigi Illica & Giuseppe Giacosa
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Runtime: 2 hours and 45 minutes including two 15-minute intervals.
Language: Italian| Surtitle: Chinese / English
A brand-new production of one of the world’s most successful and popular operas, “Madama Butterfly” by Giacomo Puccini, will be presented by Musica Viva at the Hong Kong City Hall for 4 performances during 7-9 December 2018. The production will be conducted by the world-renowned young maestro Lio Kuokman, a prize-winning conductor nurtured in Hong Kong and trained in the United States, who is currently enjoying a brilliant international career. The staging of the opera will be executed by Hong Kong’s own prolific and original creative theatre director Lo Kingman, long recognised and respected internationally for his refined and exquisite interpretations of great masterpieces. These performances feature two first rate international casts with all the oriental character sung by Asian artists with ag all the western roles undertaken by American singer. The title role of Butterfly will be shared by famous Metropolitan Opera artist Lee Sang-Eun and sensational new star Lee Myung Joo who interpreted the part in Royal Albert Hall of London, both hailed from Seoul in Korea. Two top racking lyric tenors Dominick Chenes and Jeffrey Hartman will alternate as the American naval officer Pinkerton. Altogether over 150 professional artists, singers, musicians, choristers and theatre practitioners will collaborate a on bringing this moving tragic story of exceptional beauty for your enjoyment and appreciation.
1900, a small house on a hill at Nagsaki, Japan, overlooking the city and harbour
On a terrace above Nagasaki harbour, Lieutenant B. F. Pinkerton inspects the house he has leased from a marriage broker, Goro, who has procured him a geisha wife known as Butterfly. To American Consul Sharpless, Pinkerton describes his carefree philosophy of pleasure. For the moment, he is enchanted
with the fragile Butterfly and intends to go through a marriage ceremony with her. When Sharpless warns that the girl may not take her vows lightly, the Lieutenant brushes aside such scruples, adding that he will one day take a ‘real’ American wife. At that moment Butterfly is heard in the distance joyously
singing of her wedding day. On arrival, surrounded by her friends, she tells Pinkerton how, when her family fell on hard times, she had to earn her living as a geisha. Soon her relatives arrive and noisily express their opinions on the marriage. When she finds a quiet moment, Butterfly shows her bridegroom
her few earthly treasures, telling him that she has adopted his Christian faith. With much pomp and dignity, the Imperial Commissioner performs the wedding ceremony, after which the guests toast the couple. Suddenly Butterfly’s uncle Bonzo, a high priest, bursts upon the scene, cursing the girl for having
renounced her ancestor’s religion. Pinkerton angrily orders the priest and family to leave. Alone with the bride, he dries her tears and reminds her that night is falling. Helped by her maid Suzuki into a pure white kimono, Butterfly joins the ardent Pinkerton in the garden, where they sing of their love.
Three years later, Butterfly’s House
Three years later, Butterfly still waits for her husband’s return. As Suzuki prays to her gods for aid, her mistress has her eyes fixed on the harbour. The maid urges Butterfly to remarry, for Pinkerton will never return. Butterfly asserts her faith: one fine day his ship will appear on the horizon. The Consul comes with a letter from Pinkerton, but before he can read it to Butterfly, Goro brings the latest suitor for her hand. The girl dismisses both him and the wealthy Prince Yamadori, insisting that her American husband has not deserted her. When they are alone, Sharpless again starts to read her the letter, suggesting as tactfully as he can that Pinkerton may never return. Butterfly proudly carries forth their child, insisting that as soon as Pinkerton knows of his son, he will surely come back. Moved by her devotion and lacking the heart to tell her of Pinkerton’s remarriage, Sharpless leaves. Butterfly hears a cannon shot; seizing a spyglass, she discovers Pinkerton’s ship entering the harbour. Delirious with joy, she and Suzuki strew the house with flower petals. Then, as night falls, she dons her wedding gown and, with her son and Suzuki, waits for her husband’s return.
Next morning, Butterfly’s House
As dawn breaks, Suzuki insists that Butterfly rests. Humming a lullaby to her child, she carries him to another room. Before long, Sharpless, Pinkerton and then Kate, his new wife, enter. When Suzuki realizes the truth, she collapses in despair. Out of consideration for her mistress, however, she agrees to break the news to her. Pinkerton is overcome with remorse, bids farewell to the scene of his former happiness, then rushes away. No sooner is he gone then Butterfly comes forth, expecting to find him but finding Kate instead. She takes but a moment to guess the truth. Leaning on Suzuki for support, she agrees to give up her child if the father will return for him. Then sending Suzuki away, she takes a dagger and bows before a statue of Buddha. Just as she raises the blade, Suzuki pushes the child into the room. Tearfully sobbing a farewell to him, Butterfly sends him out to play. Then, she stabs herself. Pinkerton’s voice is heard in the distance calling her name.
₍₁₎ 7/12, 7:45PM | ₍₂₎ 8/12, 7:45PM | ₍₃₎ 9/12, 2:30PM | ₍₄₎ 9/12, 7:45PM
* With kind permission of Hong Kong Ballet.
Madama Butterfly and Japonisme
Madama Butterfly, like Giacomo Puccini’s previous blockbuster Tosca, was born out a visit to the theatre. In 1900, the composer was in London for six weeks to oversee the opening of Tosca at Covent Garden on 12 July, when he was persuaded to go to the Duke of York’s Theatre for a double-bill of one act plays, including one called “Madam Butterfly”.
Puccini could speak little of anything except Italian, yet although he could hardly understand a word, he burst into tears. Once the curtain came down, he hurried backstage and begged the American playwright David Belasco to let him to turn the play into an opera.
Or so Belasco recounted a few years later. He agreed immediately, he said, because “it was impossible to discuss arrangements with an impulsive Italian who has tears in his eyes and both of his arms around your neck.”
It took almost four years, until February 1904, for this story of this ill-fated East-West romance to debut as an opera at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala. It did not go well: a “fiasco”, in fact, with hissing and mockery. Puccini immediately withdrew the score.
The composer undertook substantial revisions, and re-introduced the opera a few months later at Brescia where it was received with audience demands for seven encores and 32 curtain calls. The next year Madame Butterfly was back in London, this time as an opera. In 1907, after some other revisions, it opened at New York’s Metropolitan Opera with the composer himself in attendance. Madama Butterfly has rarely if ever left the hearts of opera-goers in the 111 years since.
The story’s origins in fact reach back a decade or so earlier to 1887 and the loosely-autobiographical novel Madame Chrysanthème by Frenchman Pierre Loti, in which a young naval officer enters into a temporary marriage with a geisha while stationed in Nagasaki.
France, of course, had been in the throes of japonisme for a couple of decades by then; kimonos, fans, lacquerware, silks and bronzes had begun flooding into Europe, affecting popular taste and culture. The French impressionists had begun collecting Japanese woodcuts. Vincent van Gogh was painting oils under the influence of these Japanese prints as Loti’s novel hit the street.
The immediate success of Madame
Chrysanthème meant that it was soon translated into English and, by 1893, adapted into an opera by André Messager. Messager was not the first French composer with an Japanese-themed opera: Camille Saint-Saëns’s La princesse jaune premiered in 1872. In other countries, Gilbert and Sullivan’s operetta The Mikado dates from 1885 and Italy’s Pietro Mascagni’s Iris came along in 1898.
But the direct antecedent for Puccini’s opera was, however, not a cultural import into Europe but an eponymous story by American lawyer John Luther Long, published in Century Magazine in 1898. Although reportedly based on recollections of his sister Jennie, the wife of a Methodist Episcopal missionary in Japan, the similarity in the plots indicate that Long must have known of Loti’s earlier work. Nevertheless, it was Long who introduced the world to Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton and thus was, via the dramatic intermediary of Belasco’s play, the source of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.
The opera opens when American naval officer Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton finds himself in Nagasaki for a long layover. To amuse himself, he buys himself a house and a 15-year-old wife, both on flexible terms, renewable monthly. The American Consul Sharpless, who is of a certain age, tries to warns him that the girl is taking it all completely seriously — she has even converted to Christianity. Pinkerton waves it off, proposing instead to drink to the day of his “proper wedding” to a “real American wife”.
The wedding ceremony collapses as Butterfly’s uncle, a local priest, shows up uninvited and curses her for renouncing her traditions. But Puccini ends the first Act ends with one of the most beautiful love duets in opera: maybe, we dare to hope, Pinkerton loves her after all.
Whether he does or not, the trajectory of his life and career are immutable. His ship leaves and Butterfly waits… with a small, blond son of whom Pinkerton is ignorant. Pinkerton, of course, does return, three years later, but not alone, leading to what may be the most heart-rending ending in musical theatre.
It’s hard to deny that Madama Butterfly is an exercise in orientalism: Asia seen through Western eyes. It is less clear, however, whether this is the ethnocentrism of which the opera is sometimes accused or a dramatic device. The accusation is usually based on the work’s perceived portrayal of Cio-cio-san—Madama Butterfly—as a submissive reinforcement of racial stereotypes. Opera, however, has no shortage of self-sacrificing, put-upon women—Gilda in Rigoletto, the eponymous Luisa Miller and Suor Angelica, Marguerite in Faust, none of whom are Asian. And Puccini’s other Asian heroine—Turandot—is anything but submissive.
There is little doubt that Pinkerton has internalized these orientalist stereotypes. He makes no secret of them. But it remains a leap to assume that the composer himself concurred. Indeed, in the portrayal of Pinkerton as almost a caricature of the expat white male in Asia, entitled and self-centred, one might read an anti-Western, anti-imperialist message. Even the more thoughtful Sharpless colludes with a shrug, only expressing serious disapproval when it is becomes clear that that “damned Pinkerton” has left him with a #MeToo mess to clean up.
It’s worth remembering here that Madama Butterfly is unusually set in what was, for those first audiences, the “present day”: the opera was meant to be happening as they watched. And in the original La Scala version, Pinkerton is even more obviously odious, making snide remarks about his new in-laws and denied the aria of regretful self-awareness, “Addio fiorito asil”, that he now has in Act III; he is left telling the US Consul Sharpless to give Butterfly money.
It is Cio-Cio San that has inspired numerous spin-offs in musicals, theatre, film and literature. Who is she? Is she a naive, delicate creature “off a Japanese screen”, as Pinkerton would have it, deceived and broken like the butterflies she worries Westerners stick with a pin? Or might she instead be only one of the three with any spine, a young woman who knowingly breaks with tradition fully aware of the possible consequences? One can watch the opera time and again and never know for certain.
It might just be that Madama Butterfly, despite Puccini’s incorporation of actual Japanese melodies for musical verisimilitude, isn’t about Japan at all. It might instead be about a young mother having to make the hardest sacrifice imaginable: giving up her child in the face of social pressure. Puccini returned to this theme a few years later in Suor Angelica which, while set in a convent, perhaps isn’t about nuns either.
Madama Butterfly can have particular resonance when performed in Asia where it can cut particularly close to the bone. Here, the story is less exotic than typical.