I will wager, folks, that this year’s Glimmerglass production is the most dramatically sound, compellingly truthful, and emotionally wrenching Madame Butterfly that you will ever see. For my own part, by the time the fragile teenage-bride geisha, a girl known as “Butterfly,” was face-to-face alone with her charismatic if careless, naval officer husband, I was swept away and found myself weeping for the rest of the evening. Puccini would be well pleased.
I have come to expect the Glimmerglass Festival, not far from Cooperstown, NY, to deliver high production values and fine singing plus competent acting. But this was that rare experience in music-theatre where the artists had coalesced into such a perfect ensemble, each of them contributing to the full realization of every staged moment, that critical analysis falls away.
Artistic Director Francesca Zambello (also Artistic Director of the Washington National Opera) has brought a new lens to the story of the tragic relationship between an American naval officer stationed for a tour of duty in Japan and his bought-bride. Rather than make the world on stage about the pretty-fying of Japanese geishas and their “quaint” tatami-filled, shoji screened homes, the story was framed through the eyes of the western ex-pats.
The story of Madame Butterfly is set a few decades after Admiral Perry had “opened up” Japan. The stunning set by Michael Yeargan takes us into the U.S. consulate with massive file cabinets and desks, and chairs representing the consul’s office and waiting room. It was filled initially with the bustle of gawking westerners dressed in off-white “colonial” long dresses and suits, with ladies carrying parasols to keep the sun at bay. A giant American flag looms across the length of the back wall with the pledge of Allegiance written on it both in English and Japanese. Throughout the evening, the waiting room also contains an assortment of Japanese women and children, some babes-in-arms, looking as if they’d spent weeks waiting to sort out visas or find the whereabouts of their husbands and fathers of their children.
The details Zambello brings to life may be harsh but accurate, I think, and makes this work speak directly to the “collateral damage” Americans and other western “economic imperialists” still leave in the wake of their times abroad. The abandoned Japanese women and children pull at our heartstrings and also remind us of other “waiting rooms,” putting faces on the statistics of current immigration issues.
The director’s bold choice upended the story in what I found to be a disturbing but important way. In most productions, Cio-Cio-San (Butterfly) and her household grow more American in costume and manners. Starting the opera framing the events through an American lens – by peeking through western eyes at “exotic” Japan – makes Cio-Cio-San’s journey one that builds by taking her “back “ to her roots. In the final scene, she dresses the little child she and Pinkerton have had in a kimono and chooses for herself an ending that was dictated by her ancestors as if in penance for turning her back and rejecting them to become an American wife.
Perhaps just as importantly, Zambello has thought through every character’s arc. There are so many awkward things about the original story. Some characters seem unfulfilled, stand-ins to help the plot but not given enough substance. Every character seemed to grow in understanding of the tragic story as it unfolded and their complicity in its final action.
Dinyar Vania plays Lieutenant Pinkerton and has the most challenging role in the opera. How to avoid making him a complete cad is not easy. Vania pulls it off by steeping his charm and his recklessness with a grinning, boyish spirit. He also makes us believe he is passionately attracted to his little Butterfly and that he is indeed the most tender and understanding of husbands in their initial cocooned life. Most of all, the famous ending is staged so that he discovers the catastrophe he has wrought and will carry its burdens and torturous outcome all his days. As he rushes in full of repentance, he discovers Butterfly dying from her self-inflicted wound. As he kneels and scoops the still warm body in his arms, their adorable little son comes running and leaps on his back, a symbol for what this man must now carry through life.
Aleksey Bogdanov, as Sharpless, makes the consummate diplomat, sympathetic but tragically ineffective. He is that rare thing, a thinking singer, who fills the long scenes he has been given to stay on stage ruminating in his office and worrying about how to bring about some breakthrough resolution in cross-cultural affairs. He makes clear his every thought process. His voice carries a rich mature sound, so that when he confronts Pinkerton, it is with the strength of that maturity, urging him to grow up and take seriously responsibility for his actions.
I will not forget the fabulous entrance of Cio-Cio-San’s Uncle Bonze, played by the young singer Thomas Richards, in saffron robes against a ferocious ancestral god. The short scene with the character’s one aria had much impact, representing a “peak” moment where visuals, sound, and character blazed as one. Ian McEuen as Goro, the Marriage Broker, achieved much variety in his playing, sometimes comically almost bouncing through scenes and at other times slightly greasy and sinister.
The women are particularly well rendered. Pinkerton’s American wife whom he brings to Japan is usually played by a practically faceless dumpling who has not enough time on stage to arouse our sympathies or present her side of things. Here Zambello uses part of the very long orchestral sequence of Cio-Cio-San’s waiting up through the night for Pinkerton’s return to include a parallel scene, a kind of flashback courting scene between Kate and Pinkerton. It takes a strong actress to pull off so much in so little time, but Erica Schoelkopf convinces us they are well matched and that the woman has both a deep caring for Pinkerton as well as a sense of humor. When she comes on to meet the Japanese wife who has born her husband a child, we follow her shock and dismay to be treated as an awkward nuisance in the proceedings and “shooed off to the side.”
Kristen Choi, with her throbbing and powerful mezzo sound, is marvelous as Suzuki, Butterfly’s maid and constant companion. She is utterly convincing as the well-trained, demure and loyal Japanese woman. She has suffered alongside her mistress and has worked tirelessly to keep the woman’s despair from engulfing the entire family.
But the opera belongs to Cio-Cio-San, and Yunah Lee is extraordinary throughout in her detailed physicality and the layered emotional colorings in her voice. She has mastered the feminine walk and the little semaphore hand movements of the geisha dancer’s craft. She uses the fan as an extension of emotional expression and her downcast eyes to convey her delicate and modest character. She doesn’t stop there; her emotional range and brilliance grows. She is trembling and frail as the child bride, a true butterfly, then passionate and receptive. She clowns with her child and with Suzuki, but she can also be cruel as when she strikes Suzuki across the face. She sits with the consul Sharpless in his office, showing her prowess as a mature Americanized wife.
Closes August 23, 2014
The Glimmerglass Festival
7300 State Highway 80
Cooperstown, NY 13326
2 hours, 45 minutes with 1 intermission
Details and Tickets
Set, lights and costumes work magically. I’ve mentioned Yeargan’s strong set but it moves us from the heavy walls of western bureaucracy to the fragile atmospheric world of Japanese water colors. This last is taken up by lighting designer Robert Wierzel and the gorgeous washes he gives the set. The night of Cio-Cio-San’s waiting is marked with the glow of growing night’s deepest blue then dawn with the rising sun. The costumes were rendered with exquisite care and coordination by Anita Yavich.
There were so many moments – all almost unbearable in both beauty and sadness. Joseph Colaneri conducts the orchestra masterfully. Run up the American flag for him, Zambello and the company. Great American opera is alive and well in Glimmerglass.
Madame Butterfly . Composed by Giacomo Puccini . Libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa . Conducted by Joseph Colaneri . Stage Direction by Francesca Zambello . Produced by Glimmerglass Festival . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.