© A. Bofill. All rights reserved Premsa Liceu
Madame Butterfly at the Liceu
Like a beautiful adult butterfly found in nature, Cio-Cia San (Madame Butterfly) does not live long. But the current Liceu production of Madame Butterfly will live in my memory for a very long time.
Saturday evening’s performance was as perfect as the most beautiful butterfly… well-casted, marvellously acted, full of emotion and seemed to transport the audience to a time and place far away from Barcelona. As I was leaving the opera house, I felt I had just returned from the Japan of more than a century ago. The stage design with Japanese panel doors, the costuming, the orchestration and the exquisite voice of the American soprano Patricia Raclette, making her debut performance at the Liceu, all combined to create an ambiance that is truly not to be missed.
The premiere in 1904 of Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly was not well-received and he rewrote it several times before the version we enjoy today, a three-act opera, was completed later that year. It is based in part on a short story Madame Butterfly written by John Luther Long in 1898, which was dramatised by David Belasco. Puccini may also have derived elements from the novel Madame Chrysanthème by Pierre Loti written in 1887. And possibly, as one scholar believes, the story of the opera was based upon events that actually occurred in Nagasaki in the early 1890s.
Regardless of the actual basis for the story, Madame Butterfly is one of the most performed and well-loved operas and deservedly so. Cio-Cio San ('butterfly' in Japanese) is a young 15 year old who is marrying an American Naval officer, Pinkerton. She believes he is marrying her for love, but while enchanted with her beauty, grace, delicacy and youth, he is taking her as his wife for convenience. He plans to find a 'proper' American wife and is taking full advantage of lax Japanese divorce laws to simply enjoy Butterfly for a short while. A true cad, but as it turns out later, a cad with a bit of heart, although far too late to help Butterfly. Stefano Secco’s portrayal of Pinkerton is brilliant and the love duet between Butterfly and Pinkerton, on the eve of their wedding night is moving, beautiful and displays a great deal of chemistry between Patricia Raclette and Stefano Secco.
Prior to marrying Pinkerton, Butterfly secretly abandons her Japanese religion and converts to Christianity. She believes that Pinkerton truly loves her and her marriage to him makes her extremely happy, so much so, that she requests that her friends call her Madame Pinkerton, rather than Madame Butterfly. Before he returns to the US shortly after their wedding, he tells Butterfly that he will be coming back. After three years, Butterfly is still anticipating his return and is confident that Pinkerton will return. Goro, the marriage broker who arranged her marriage to Pinkerton, keeps trying to marry her off, but she will not listen to him. Goro (delightfully sung and comically acted by Francisco Vas) tells Sharpless, the American Consul (played by the baritone Fabio Capitanucci) that Butterfly still thinks that she is married. She responds “I do not think I am; I am.” Goro reminds her of the Japanese law of marriage, she responds that she knows of it but it is not the law of her country, the United States. Butterfly understands the ease of Japanese divorce “…but in America you cannot do that.” Her maid, the realistic, caring, protective Suzuki, performed by the Canadian Marie-Nicole Lemieux in her very pleasant debut at the Liceu, tries to convince Butterfly that Pinkerton will not be returning. While Butterfly has matured during Pinkerton’s absence and is the mother of his son (unbeknown to Pinkerton), her love and faith in Pinkerton remain unshaken.
Unfortunately, the opera does not end happily. Pinkerton remains a cad and a coward, returning to Nagasaki but with an American wife. Upon learning he has a son, he decides to take his son back to the US where his American wife will raise the child as if he is her own. Showing no courage and unable to face Butterfly he lets others inform her of his decision. Devastated, Butterfly says an emotional goodbye to her son (it certainly put a tear in my eye) and has the little boy wait outside, waving an American flag, while she returns physically inside the house and emotionally to her Japanese culture and her sense of honour, committing hara-kiri with her father’s knife.
Puccini created a very sensitive and deep character in his treatment of Butterfly and an equally callous and shallow one for Pinkerton. And while hardly a positive portrayal of American attitudes and interests at the end of the 19th century, it is a seemingly accurate one. From so many different angles, this performance of Madame Butterfly is outstanding. The interpretation that brings a freshness and vibrancy to all the characters, the emotions so well expressed between Butterfly and Suzuki as well as between Butterfly and her son plus the remarkable vocal performances, certainly earned the audience’s enthusiastic response in their applause, including that for the adorable pint-size actor who played Butterfly’s son, Dolor.
The Liceu will be presenting Madame Butterfly until July 29th.