Puccini's Madame Butterfly -- about a young geisha in Nagasaki, Japan, who loses her honor and ultimately her life over love -- premiered in Milan in 1904 and promptly became one of the opera world's biggest flops. The Milan audience expressed its displeasure by heckling the leading lady and the composer, even going so far as to imitate donkey brays and cow moos as the music played on.
That awful beginning, however, failed to foreshadow what Madame Butterfly was to become. With only two moderate changes, which Puccini made in three months, Butterfly reopened to enormous success.
Certainly, the Houston audience made no animal noises Friday at Houston Grand Opera's opening-night production of Madame Butterfly. And even if some turn-of-the-century Italian had time-traveled his way to the Wortham last weekend, surely the only sounds he would have uttered would have been tender weeping over a wonderful, even magnificent, rendition of Madame Butterfly.
A good deal of the credit for this stunning take on Butterfly goes to director Francesca Zambello. Clearly, when Zambello sets out to interpret an opera, she sets out to make it new, provocative and, in the case of Madame Butterfly, utterly heartbreaking.
One of Zambello's strengths is a deeply symbolic vision, evident even in the opera's opening image. As the curtain rises, two sets of scrims descend. Painted on the downstage scrim are delicate, almost invisible images of Japanese foliage. On the upstage scrim is a huge and too brightly colored American flag. The Asian supers (or extras) who populate the opera bustle through this alleyway of scrim. Clearly, these are a people caught between two cultures, one that's romantic, even idealized, and one that's garishly real. Throughout the opera, set designer Michael Yeargan helps Zambello realize her vision through a series of minimalistic sets that are often thought-provoking and at times starkly dramatic.
Butterfly tells the story of a love-struck 15-year-old geisha (Cio-Cio-San, also known as Butterfly) who marries an American Navy lieutenant (Pinkerton), only to be abandoned by him shortly thereafter. When he returns to Japan three years later and discovers she has borne him a son, he decides to take the child to America to be raised by his American wife. In the end, a desolate Cio-Cio-San agrees to this terrible arrangement and then commits hara-kiri, believing that if one cannot live with honor, one must die with it.
One of Zambello's more unusual choices is to set the first act, in which Cio-Cio-San and Pinkerton marry, in the office of the American consul rather than in Cio-Cio-San's house and garden, where the marriage is usually staged. The choice is intellectually interesting, as it allows us to watch the machinations of the American colonizers, who almost gleefully turn away the Japanese supplicants who crowd the consul office's outer chambers.
Pinkerton represents the worst sort of colonizer, believing that "around the world the carefree Yankee takes his pleasure and his profit and drops his anchor where he pleases." As sung Friday by Paul Charles Clarke, Pinkerton came off so cruel and so cavalier as to be hateful; he was an American who didn't seem to own a heart. Clarke gave this impression in part because he seemed almost uneasy on stage, even during the famous duet Pinkerton shares with Cio-Cio-San, which begins with delighted exchanges between the lovers and then builds toward a shared high C of passionate desire. Clarke had none of the sexy swagger necessary to make Pinkerton work. Since Pinkerton is so cruel, his character must be mediated by some sort of erotic vitality. Otherwise, it makes no sense that Cio-Cio-San would fall so destructively in love with him.
Indeed, aside from a terrific performance by Frank Hernandez as Sharpless, the American consul in Nagasaki, and the work of conductor Vjekoslav Sutej and the Houston Grand Opera Orchestra, Act One came off as stiff. Too many people stood around with too little to do, and the lively humor hidden in many of the moments between Pinkerton and Goro, the marriage broker who arranges the wedding with Cio-Cio-San, were lost. Even Paula Delligatti (Cio-Cio-San) and Jill Grove (Suzuki, her servant), both of whom sang exquisitely in the second and third acts, came off as somewhat flat-footed in the beginning.
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Thankfully, Act One is brief and easily forgotten in the magical lyricism of Acts Two and Three. Dutifully withstanding the scorn of those who think her a fool, Cio-Cio-San has been faithfully waiting three years for Pinkerton's return. Delligatti came back on stage after intermission with a newfound passion and presence of voice that only got stronger and more moving as the night progressed. The duet she shared with Grove in which Cio-Cio-San makes clear her faith in Pinkerton's return was soulful and sweetly tender, though it musically foreshadows all the dark sorrow Cio-Cio-San will soon come to know. When she discovers that Pinkerton is indeed returning to Nagasaki, she rushes home to ready herself and Pinkerton's son (named Trouble) for his arrival. What she doesn't know is that he will return with an American wife.
At Cio-Cio-San's home, the set and Alan Burrett's lighting design manage to be both intellectually arresting and dramatically stunning. Her garden is suggested by a series of Asian-inspired scrims and gorgeous lighting that reveal a magnificent sunset as the scene progresses toward Cio-Cio-San's tragic suicide. While pink petals drift down from the sky, Cio-Cio-San, Suzuki and young Trouble scatter more of them across the ground, in eager anticipation of Pinkerton. This scene is so lovely that it looks almost ballet-like. The enormity of the practically empty stage strewn with thousands of fallen petals suggests just how lost Cio-Cio-San and her family have become as she has abandoned one culture only to be abandoned herself by another. And as the pink blossoms slowly turn blood red under the darkening light of evening, her end becomes more and more apparent.
Today's Italian audiences are said to begin sniffling during Act Two, only to give way to all-out sobs during Act Three. And though I heard very little weeping during last weekend's final act, I suspect that that had more to do with American reserve than with the emotional impact of HGO's production. Certainly, audience members seemed riveted as Cio-Cio-San's end drew near. I won't reveal the way her death is handled; I will, though, say that it's as dramatic and grandly stirring an ending as any I've witnessed in the theater. And as the lights came up, I know many were weeping Texas-sized tears.
Madame Butterfly plays through February 15 at the Wortham Center, 500 Texas, 237-1439.