Madama Butterfly, Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on a play by David Belasco and a story by John Luther Long. Music by Giacomo Puccini. Directed by Jonathan Loy. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Inna Los and the chorus; photo: Ken Howard
Inna Los and Jason Slayden; photo: Ken Howard
Lily Shepardson, Inna Los; photo: Ken Howard
Sarah Larsen, Lily Shepardson, Inna Los; photo: Ken Howard
"Non lo sapete insomma [In other words, you don't know]"
No words sung by Cio-Cio San (Madame Butterfly) in the opera more succinctly sum up the problems of the story of this classic opera. The young fifteen year old girl who commits herself to a marriage with a foreigner, adopts his religion as her own, conforms her mode of dress and style of living to what she imagines his to be could be more unrealisticly certain of anything. She has come to the marriage to Lt. Pinkerton of the US Navy from a short life as a Geisha, trained to please and to accept money for doing so. Her family has no wealth and is lead by a religious zealot whose anger at her choices alienates her from mother, aunts, relations of all sorts. She has only her faithful attendant, Suzuki, and her husband's friends to rely upon after he sails away again, leaving her on her own. She has to fend off a marriage broker who sold her once to her American spouse and would sell her again for a higher fee to low-level Prince. She is convinced her husband is faithful and she will remain faithful also, but in truth she really doesn't know much about what is going on in her own world, the world she has created for herself.
This is a beautiful love story told with extremely lovely music, thematic in almost a Wagnerian fashion, themes heard early in the opera returning as underscore or even sung for a bar or two later in the work, returning us, the audience, emotionally to committed moments encountered much earlier. As constructed the opera's principal characters are exactly who they are when we first meet them. The men do not grow, do not change. Pinkerton is the only exception; his early cynicism has been altered first by loving admiration for his child-bride, and then by his return with another, American, wife. More than three years have passed between Act One and Act Two and in those years Butterfly has changed a great deal. She is no longer a child. She is a woman of eighteen and a troubled woman at that. She has matured. Therein lies my one principal problem with the Berkshire Opera Festival's lovely first full production in the region.
This opera has been in my head since I first heard Licia Albanese sing it at the Metropolitan when I was five years old. From that performance comes my strong, emotional memory of Butterfly's suicide, something that has never been ecqualled for me since. Four years later, in Chicago, I saw Maria Callas create the role and, once again, her two different women, young and older, have remained with me as a standard up to which I measure every Butterfly since 1955. The lyrico-Spinto voice called for in the score and that is a difficult voice to find these day, I hear, and certainly in Inna Los, there is much more a dramatic, strong, and mature mid-voice than I care for in this part. I understand how unfair it is to compare later interpretations of this role against two such formative impressions, but I cannot help it. I do.
Inna Los, singing the role today, is neither of her predecessors. However her performance is lovely and is exactly what director Jonathan Loy has seen for his production. He has updated the show from 1904 to 1960s, just why I cannot say. Set completely in the environs of Nagasaki, in the home of Butterfly, the men appear much as they always have and the use of more modern American styled furniture is fine, as is Charles Caine's version of the Jackie Kennedy suit for Act Two's "Americanization of Cio-Cio-San" but we have to accept things that make no real sense. Japan had television since early 1950 and American series, such as "I Love Lucy" were already very popular there. Even Butterly would have had some exposure to these things, but the woman on stage clearly has not. Japan, in the wake of World War II, was a very different place and the attitude towards American military was quite different that it had been at the turn of the 20th century. The psychology of this story is skewed a bit with a reference to the Kennedy years. It makes less logical sense. What never changes, though is Pinkerton's odd devotion to his Geisha bride. In his letter throwing her over he still expresses his 1904 concern for her future. That makes little logical sense, but once passing that thought through the brain it is easy to just settle on the music and the drama and ignore all reality. At least I hope it is.
Los has too mature a sound, for my taste, in the first act. I cannot get Callas out of my brain. In the second act she is a truly wonderful heroine, singing of her lovely understanding of human nature, her belief in the faithfulness of her lover/husband, her honest repudiation of her Japanese heritage. When she falls back away from this, realizing that her perfect reality is not a real possibility, her reliance on the historical understanding of her dead father and his pledges to his world, make her into a lovely and honest Japanese woman, really a man in woman's clothing, for the strength of her conviction guarantees others freedom and a future. Her blonde child will have his eminent destiny.
As her servant, Suzuki, Sarah Larsen plays the role effectively, her mezzo-soprano tones a perfect complement to Los dramatic soprano. She plays the role with an affectionate distance from Butterfly but a concern for the well-being of the family she attends. Eduardo Valdes is an excellent Goro, the marriage broker. His tenor voice is rich and strong and provides as much character as his acting. Weston Hurt as the US Consul, and friend of Pinkerton, does a wonderful job presenting the sympathetic man left with an unsympathetic duty. His baritone voice is perfect and carries through the house wonderfully. Every word was clear and every emotion he felt was visibly presented without exaggeration.
John Cheek returns to our local opera stage as The Bonze, a priest who is also Butterfly's uncle. His denunciation of her at her wedding was less dramatically presented than usual and so it had an impact that settled in rather than shook you from your seat. I thought it an excellent manner in which to take the stage and have his moment. He sounded good also. Young Lily Shepardson was fine as Butterfly's child. and Katherine Maysek performed the unrewarding Kate Pinkerton with awkward, hair, clothing and movement. In one of Puccini's other versions this character has an aria which makes her less intrusive and more human, but Maysek was not given that musical opportunity.
The B.F. Pinkerton (B.F. for Benjamin Franklin which makes him 100% American not even the slightest bit English as he is in the original story) was tenor Jason Slayden, a wonderful discovery. His voice is like cut crystal, sharp at the edges, but brilliant and right on the money. He created a wonderful, romantic character on stage and was in every way the equal of Ms. Los's Butterfly. As always it is hard to understand and justify his final appearance vocally. Even so, his entrance just before the final curtain was beautifully staged and acted and, if we remember this is opera, we can as usual accept the illogical ending here.
Director Jonathan Loy has eked out performances with dramatic finesse from his cast. His intended update doesn't really work for me, but so little of the real outside world takes the stage that it really doesn't matter; it is only in a sense of female clothing that there is an impression of a more contemporary setting. What he has done with an innovative setting and his talented crews both offstage and onstage is what matters and he has given us a good, honest production that is easy to watch and easy to follow. Even the surtitles don't interfere with the interplay below them on the stage.
Brian Garman conducted a wonderful orchestra. The chorus under Enrico Lopez-Yanez direction sang beautifully and the humming chorus which bridges the two long scenes of Act Two was spiritually inspiring. Stephen Dobay's set was interesting in that it was beautiful but didn't exactly transport us between the garden and the house as is usually done. Charles Caine's costumes were fine and John Froelich's lighting was evocative and romantic, almost lush at times.
It is nice to have professional opera back in the Berkshires and the Colonial Theatre is an ideal place for it be performed. Of course, one opera does not make a festival, but the company is new and will hopefully grow beyond a single war-horse presentation. We should all welcome the chance to see and to hear something as nicely done as this Puccini opera.
Madama Butterfly will be presented again on August 30 and September 2 at the Colonial Theatre on South Street in Pittsfield, MA. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-213-6622 or go on line at www.berkshireoperafestival.org.