At the beginning of Puccini’s masterpiece “Madama Butterfly,” Lt. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton makes two shady deals. Everything that happens in this tragic opera hinges on his double subterfuge.
At 10:55 a.m. Saturday in the Fort Lewis College Student Union, The MET Live in HD will resume. Opera lovers in New York City will fill the opera house for the Saturday matinee, and we in Colorado will view the stunning Anthony Minghella production livestreamed in the comfortable movie-darkened Vallecito Room with plenty of leg room.
The story rapidly unfurls. Pinkerton (tenor Andrea Caré) signs a 99-year lease for a cottage overlooking the Nagasaki Harbor. The deal goes by quickly, and a longer ceremony follows to formally sign a marriage document. Pinkerton persuades the young, beautiful Cio-Cio-san (soprano Hui He) and her extended family that he’s sincere. It’s an elaborate scene that contrasts two cultures: casual American informality and rigorous Japanese ritual.
Only we know that Pinkerton considers both contracts short-term deals. He has no intention of honoring them in the long run.
When Puccini’s tragic opera premiered in 1904 (Italy), 1907 (New York City), it capitalized on the still fresh tumult over the opening of Japan half a century earlier. “Butterfly” dramatized East-West conflicts in a vivid, personal way, bringing together a callous American man and a traditional Japanese girl.
The opera’s staying power can easily be attributed to the intense human drama and Puccini’s stirring music. “Butterfly” continues to mesmerize us because of contemporary controversies about cultural and sexual imperialism.
Puccini was inspired by an American play he saw in London. Although Puccini spoke no English, he was so moved by David Belasco’s “Madame Butterfly,” he immediately contacted his two favorite librettists to launch an opera based on the play and the original source material, a short story by John Luther Long.
Now all but lost in history, Long was an American lawyer who published a work about a beautiful Japanese girl who “married” a Western naval officer on temporary leave in Nagasaki. Mr. Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, as he insisted his new wife address him, was a spoiled, immature, entitled American military officer. He forced his bride to reject her family, abandon her religion for his and speak only English. Pinkerton mocked her: “He joking all times,” she tells Sharpless late in Long’s story.
You can read Long’s story on the internet as it is copyright-free and worth the time.
Beginning with the sham property and marriage contracts, the opera follows Long’s story closely. Butterfly’s loyalty resists reality checks by both Goro, her marriage broker, and Sharpless, Pinkerton’s older diplomatic adviser. In an ironic casting twist, baritone Paulo Szot will replace Placido Domingo as Sharpless after charges of sexual improprieties made against Domingo.
The opera and original story have somewhat different endings, although in both, Butterfly stoically acknowledges her fate. The opera ends conclusively with Pinkerton arriving back in Nagasaki with his American wife to claim his love-child. The original story is more ambiguous, with a scene in which Mrs. Pinkerton unexpectedly meets Cio-Cio-san and dismisses her as an insignificant Asian plaything.
In the original story, the Pinkertons deserve each other. It’s not always that clear in operatic performances.
The Met production opens with a pantomime into which the overture crashes with its dark foreboding. The contracts, the wedding, the love scene, the departure and the painful waiting Butterfly endures, are all exquisitely wrought.
If you’ve never seen an opera before, this is the one to see. If you’ve seen “Butterfly” many times, this is the one to see.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.