At What Price America?
There have, arguably, been as many interpretations of Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly” as there have been productions for stage and screen. Richly layered with political, gendered, and erotic concerns, Puccini’s 1904 opera, with libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica, came to influence how the West perceived and represented the ‘mysterious East.' Particularly oriental women. From Anna May Wong in Java Head in 1934, to Miss Saigon in 1989, the spirit of Puccini’s Cio-Cio-San is never far away. A paragon of loyal, oriental womanhood, dignified to the end, whom Western men bring to ruin. In Irish National Opera’s production of “Madama Butterfly” director Ben Barnes’s tilted focus maximises Puccini’s political concerns through minimising the erotic. Conservatively safe, something exciting does get lost. Yet when it comes to music, singing, and sheer theatricality, “Madama Butterfly” is anything but short on excitement.
Re-set in the late 50s and early 60s, “Madama Butterfly” finds naval officer B.F. Pinkerton and his bride Cio-Cio-San, the eponymous Madama Butterfly, getting married for this sexual convenience and setting up home in Nagasaki. Except, for Madama Butterfly, marriage isn’t for convenience, it’s for life. Surrendering completely and converting to Christianity, Cio-Cio-San incurs the wrath of her uncle, The Bonze, of her family, and of her indigenous neighbours who collectively disown her, leaving her with the fickle Pinkerton and her faithful maid, Suzuki. Returning to America Pinkerton deserts his new Japanese wife, leaving her to fend for herself, but promises to return. Remaining faithful Cio-Cio-San, despite offers, waits with the son he knows nothing about until Pinkerton’s eventual return leads to inevitable tragedy.
Throughout “Madama Butterfly” Puccini enjoys a love hate relationship with America. His presidentially named Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, serving as a lieutenant aboard the Abraham Lincoln, bringing to ruin a fifteen year old Japanese girl strongly suggests Puccini had some serious concerns with American imperialism. Concerns director Ben Barnes shares and richly exploits in his politically focused retelling. One which foregrounds the political over the personal and shows little love for the hidden values of the land of the free. Indeed, both Puccini and Barnes seem to be asking at what price America? And, at what price, America?
Under Barnes’s fluid direction, Brett Polegato’s superb United States Consul, Sharpless, might like to think he’s the caring conscience of the U S of A, but when push comes to shove he takes care of his own, mindful of who supplies his whisky and privilege. Namely Julian Hubbard’s cowardly, self serving Pinkerton, an officer who’s no gentleman, and who risks being two twists away from a moustache twirling villain more at home with Chaplin than Cio-Cio-San. Not surprising given that Barnes and costumer designer, Joan O’Clery, opt to neutralise “Madama Butterfly’s” problematic eroticism. The resulting erasure risking Pinkerton having only pantomime villainy left to play with, a risk Hubbard negotiates incredibly well.
Barnes’s direction of the pre-conjugal end to Act One being a case in point, highlighting this erasure of the erotic. With little eye contact, minimal touch, and a sexually charge-less cradling between Pinkerton and Cio-Cio-San leading to some out of sight sex behind paper screens, the erotic is rendered so distant, safe, and sanitised no one could possibly be disturbed, aroused, or offended. What little eroticism remains lies in O’Clery’s costumes, beautifully capturing Puccini’s colourfully arrayed oriental butterfly who's later neutralised within a supremely disconcerting, Norman Rockwell styled, idealised American housewife. Even in her white robe Cio-Cio-San seems to dress, as well as behave, as if she’s more American than the Americans themselves. A look made doubly striking when set against servants such as Doreen Curran’s traditionally attired Suzuki, and O’Clery’s sumptuous sunset of Geishas.
Further exploring the visual tensions between East and West, designer Todd Rosenthal wonderfully juxtaposes American flags and hints of 50s Americana with a Tanizaki inspired minimalism of paper screens playing with light and shadow. Yet if Rosenthal’s details are minimal, they’re exquisitely precise. A shrine and a crucifix, representing the two gods and cultures who abandon Cio-Cio-San, in a set sublimely lit by John Comiskey, capture everything that needs to be said. A short video design by Aaron Kelly, whose Vietnam references tips its hat at Miss Saigon as well as American war brides, might muddy the literal Japanese waters, but it all serves to reinforce Barnes’s political concerns regarding the West’s responsibility to the East, whatever that East may currently look like. As well as serving Barnes’s aesthetic sensibility, sequencing images like strolling through an art gallery. Throughout, Barnes, along with choreographer Libby Seward, visually arrest through colour, composition and controlled movements, crafting stage paintings that hint of Japanese ink wash and a Western lavishness. Poignantly and perfectly realised, visually and audibly, during the sublime 'Humming Chorus.'
Yet always, always, always, “Madama Butterly” is about the music and singing. Indeed, whatever preferences people have regarding the political or the personal, singing in “Madama Butterfly” is never short of sublime. The RTÉ Concert Orchestra, under conductor Timothy Redmond, wonderfully convey Puccini’s sweeping, almost cinematic score. Tenor Julian Hubbard, baritone Brett Polegato and mezzo-soprano Doreen Curran are each individually impressive, and collectively breathtaking during an exquisitely constructed rendition of 'lo so che alle sue pene…Oh! L’amara fragranza' with its triple interplay of overlapping and layered voices between Sharpless, Pinkerton and Suzuki. Soprano Celine Byrne stuns as the tragic Cio-Cio-San. With Byrne carrying the bulk of “Madama Butterfly’s” emotional weight, her singing proves simply extraordinary in range, depth, and texture. All of whom are surrounded by a superb chorus, as well as a host of strong supporting voices and characters.
Steeped in opulent simplicity, “Madama Butterfly's” set and costumes look simply divine and its music and singing are nothing short of stunning. Interrogating politics and gender, as well as “Madama Butterfly’s” own place within those politics, Barnes might not see America emerging with very much honour. But he ensures Puccini’s women do. None more than the immortal Cio-Cio-San, courtesy of a stirring performance by Byrne, in this sumptuously rich production.
“Madama Butterfly” by Puccini, with libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Ilica, presented by Irish National Opera in association with Bord Gáis Energy Theatre ,in partnership with RTÉ Concert Orchestra, runs at The Bord Gáis Energy Theatre March 26, 28 and 30, transferring to Cork Opera House April 4 and 5.