MADAMA BUTTERFLY AT THE MET: ASMIK GREGORIAN IS BUTTERFLY

The most recent study names Puccini’s Madama Butterfly as the sixth most popular opera in the world. In fact, seeing the opera at the age of sixteen prompted Yoko Watanabe (1953-2004) to a singing career, eventually to the position of the most famous of Japanese opera singers, certainly to be one of the most acclaimed interpreters of Puccini’s Cio-Cio-San:

 “The character of Butterfly is one of the most finely drawn human beings ever to grace an operatic stage. “I cannot think of her equal in the opera world, and must turn to Ibsen or Chekhov to find her equal in the dramatic world. Everything she does makes perfect sense for her, and her fate is thoroughly believable. The descent toward the tragic finale is inexorable, which means she develops before our eyes (and ears) in a way that is rare in opera.”[i]

The rerun of Anthony Minghella’s 2016 Madama Butterfly  to the Metropolitan Opera’s demonstrates why Puccini’s work is one of the most popular of all operas. Madama Butterfly charms its audience, paradoxically by focusing on a horrific situation and a tragic response. The late Anthony Minghella’s production, especially the direction and choreography of his wife Carolyn Choa, was simply dazzling in every regard.

From the opera’s origin as a very popular play by the great American director-playwright David Belasco,  audiences have recognized the source of the work’s power. In his Life of David Belasco, theater critic William Winter summarizes the plot:

‘A man commits the worst and meanest of all acts, the wronging of an innocent girl, and then deserts her.”[ii] The Japanese characters in the drama consider U.S. naval Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton to be “a barbarian and a beast.”

In the course of Puccini’s opera, the audience comes to share that opinion. Audiences throughout the world, and of all times, have come to that same opinion of  Madama Butterfly. Why?

“Extremes and contrasts of much human experience; in its essential passages it possesses the cardinal merits of simplicity and directness, and in representation its effect is afflictingly pathetic.” Madama Butterfly “is a situation, and, though some of its detail is trivial, it reveals elemental extremes and contrasts of much human experience; in its essential passages it possesses the cardinal merits of simplicity and directness”[iii]

The entire performing experience uses universal means to create the universal effect. Based on the recollections of his sister’s stay in Japan as the wife of a Methodist missionary, John Luther Long penned the short story used by American David Belasco for his play. Italian Giacomo Puccini turned the stage Madame into the operatic  Madama, casting Hungarian Elza Szamosy to sing, in Italian, the role of the Japanese young woman, Cio-Cio-San. These spontaneous international collaborations and appreciations were only possible because the work contains universal elements, transcending times and places.

America’s first great Cio-Cio-San, Geraldine Farrar of Melrose Massachusetts, spent a great deal of time in researching for her role under extensive tutelage. In her autobiography her mother writes of Geraldine

“She had a co-worker, a delightful; little actress, Madame Fu-ji-Ko, whose dainty personality and grace were her model for authentic gesture and carriage…She shuffled, posed, danced and gesticulated under the watchful eye of the Japanese artist, herself in native costume. A mighty pretty picture they made. These two were so eager and intent upon their work, I had their luncheon and tea brought to them on trays, insisting they stop long enough to have some nourishment.”[iii]

The current Met production was dreamed by the late Anthony Minghella, the son of an Italian ice cream maker, and stars the  forty-two year old Lithuanian soprano Asmik Gregorian as the title character could not offer a more realized character both dramatically and vocally, One might say her Met debut was the arrival of a new stellar soprano. The thirty-six year old American tenor Jonathan Tetelman is Pinkerton. Tetelman succeeds quite well as “a very curious role in the repertory. Besides his questionable character, he is absent from the stage for much of the opera. However, he must be as attractive, physically and vocally, as any other tenor role in opera, or the story will make very little sense.”[ii] And Mr. Tetelman certainly is.

The production has great depth in its cast. Veteran forty-six year old American baritone Lucas Meachem offers a powerful and sympathetic Sharpless, the anchor of common sense and compassion in the story, not unlike Starbuck in Moby Dick. Sharpless must have a soothing and authoritative sound, even though he is actually remarkably ineffectual (hence, perhaps, the name).” Mr. Meachem is everything the role could ask for. Mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong’s Suzuki, “is also a voice of reason, like Sharpless, and provides a nearly continuous vocal contrast to Butterfly throughout Act II. It is not unusual to see a star mezzo like Ms. DeShong in this role.[iii] HerSuzuki seems to know all, but suffers from her inability to affect the events swirling around her and the people she loves.

Canadian scene designer Michael Levine employs shoji, sliding Japanese doors with great imagination and effect. The vibrant color palate of New York fashion designer Han Feng’s costumes draws upon Japan’s wild Kabuki for its reds, greens, and blues which dominate  the lovely but monochromatic settings. Kuroko, the black costumed stagehands of Bunraku puppet theater, are “everywhere present”, smoothing the action along, and brilliantly manipulating the various puppet characters, especially the one playing Cio-Cio-San ‘s three-year-old son. The puppeteers of London’s Blind Summit Theatre, directed by Mark Down, deserve credit for animating the puppets to integrate emotionally with the live actors on stage. Lanterns, ribbons, and parasols are all part of the elaborate choreographic world created by Mr. Minghella’s company.  The monumental Puccini music is supervised eloquently by fifty-on year old Chinese conductor Xian Zhang.

Mr Belasco detailed the conclusion of his stage play and Puccini adopted it for his opera.

“Butterfly gives the child an American flag and a doll. Then she bandages his eyes. With her eyes still fixed upon the boy, she goes behind the screen. The dagger is heard falling to the ground. Butterfly emerges from behind the screen, groping for the child while she smiles feebly. She drags the child toward her, having just enough strength to embrace him. Them she falls to the ground. Pinkerton is heard calling: “Butterfly.!, Butterfly! Butterfly!. Pinkerton and Sharpless rush into the room. Butterfly points to the child, and then dies.”

Classic art should not be  a playpen for would-be avant-gardsters to impose their political and social ideas. Rather it is a gauge which measures our unchanging humanity. It is not for us to judge and “improve” the art. Rather we are being judged by our trust in it. The universal truths in Madama Butterfly have been adjudicating the humanity of men and women of all ethnicities and places for over a century.

The current revival has been entrusted to stage director Paula Williams. It would be interesting to know the thoughts of Mr. Belasco, the uncredited original playwright, Mr. Puccini, and even Mr.Minghella himself  concerning the rococo “improvements” made to the classic opera’s dramatic simplicity under her supervision.

Shelley observed that opera, as all great art, “teaches the human heart the knowledge of itself.

And that knowledge is universal.

And simple.

Critics sometime complain when opera companies continue to offer the public the same works year after year. They insist on new works. But, as Ezra Pound observed,  the classic work of art  is “news that stays news.”

These critics fail to realize that, while the operas themselves might remain the same, the human hearts, the human souls, the nous, which experience the operas, are different each time. One’s heart is different at one’s first Madama Butterfly, as it is different at the Madama Butterfly of middle age. And it will certainly be different for one’s last Madama Butterfly. Living prepares the heart to hear and see anew at each new time of one’s life.

[i] Berger, William. Puccini Without Excuses. A Refresshing Reassessment of the World’s Most Popular Composer. New York: Knopf Doubleday, 2005.

[ii] William E. Winter, The Life of David Belasco, p. 478-480.

[iii] Farrar, Geraldine. Such Sweet Compulsion. New York” The Greystone Press,

 

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