Boston Lyric Opera has premised the appropriateness of its well-sung and very-well-played current Colonial Theater production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly on a story-changing apologia embracing many words, symposia, and discussion groups. In short, the company posits that the original libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on a play by David Belsasco which had been based on a short story by John Luther Long and Pierre Loti’s semi-autobiographical novel (which I recommend) “Madame Chrysanthemum,” which seemingly inspired all of the versions, traffics in unacceptable orientalism and demeans Asians. One writer even opined that it should be stricken from the canon absent modifications to the plot. Thus stage director Phil Chan “Reimagined Madame Butterfly.” While we heard 99% of the original words (I used the BLO libretto to confirm my notes and memory of text changes which are summarized HERE), the interpretation made significant departures from the story.
After an inserted prologue of two elderly women silently attending to domestic chores (we later learned that they were Cio-Cio-San and Suzuki), the action began in San Fransisco’s Shangri-La nightclub in Chinatown. After a slightly tawdry vaudeville number, a sham marriage ceremony between Butterfly and Pinkerton ensues over the objections of Uncle Bonze (not the Bonze) and some of the club employees. Butterfly and Pinkerton unexpectedly fall in love. Pinkerton leaves. FDR announces a roundup of Japanese Americans. Act Two finds Suzuki, Butterfly and Pinkerton Jr. in an Arizona internment camp. Spoiler: Butterfly’s baby dies of tuberculosis and Butterfly is given agency so that she can get over Pinkerton’s rejection and choose to live. Did Cio-Cio San have agency from the get-go? She knowingly entered into a contract to restore her wealth and that of her relatives in the standard plot. The crux of the story for me is how love transformed the contract for both signatories.
BLO often updates plots to achieve political correctness or relevance, or both…or neither. I’ll never forget its “feminist” Don Giovanni in which Donna Anna humped the Don to death. In this latest case, one wonders again whether redress was necessary or achieved. Puccini depicted Pinkerton as pleasure-seeking cad, throwing his money around, but he also imagined the Japanese as groveling for those dollars—every aunt, uncle, retainer, and geisha reached out for greenbacks. Every character, western and eastern, exhibited transactional greed. How, then, with all shown to be wanting in morality, could Puccini be said to have demeaned Asians in particular? If anything, all the Asian dramatic personae were shown to be more refined and cultured then the American navy lieutenant. Was the Japanese suicide cult insulting to Asians? Would a male hara-kiri have registered fewer enlightening objections than a female killing herself over love?
Forcibly relocating 125,000 west-coast Japanese Americans to internment camps during WWII constituted an abhorrent violation of their civil rights, but in the context of fascist ideology and of the appeal by fascist leaders to blood-and-soil identity, the concern that Japanese Americans might admire the Empire of Japan was at least understandable. Among all the horrors of war, the experience of Japanese Americans in internment camps, bitter and unjust as it was, was not driven by cruelty. By contrast, treatment of German Jews who escaped Nazi Germany only to be treated as enemy aliens in France and England and rounded up accordingly horrifies us much more.
Among all the horrors of war, the experience of Japanese Americans in camps seems relatively mild. Yes, 1,800 people died from medical problems while in the camps and about one out of every 10 of these people died of tuberculosis—the given cause of death for Cio-Cio-San’s baby in the current version. How many would have died had they remained in San Francisco’s densely populated Japantown? Why did BLO depict the Poston camp with a sharpshooter in a guard tower taking aim at Suzuki during an argument? A Wikipedia article on the Poston camp said that “the site was so remote that authorities considered building guard towers to be unnecessary.” Did the conceit lay a guilt trip on us? Would we do the same thing again if we were attacked?
Moving the action to just after Pearl Harbor vilifies rather than humanizes the then-brutal Japanese and creates even more problematical implications. In the first act, other than trading geishas’ kimonos for blousy 1940 dresses and chorus-girl bathing suits, this production hardly did away with exoticism and orientalism. And one could also wonder about some of the sanitation: Suzuki became a Christian in this telling instead of Butterfly, the quiz about age found the chorus asking Pinkerton how old he was rather than Pinkerton asking Butterfly…probably because she admitted to being 15; Butterfly is more caught between cultures in the original, and thus her plight is more poignant; BLO cast her as a Japanese in San Francisco’s Chinatown; that’s a less dramatic premise, but it explains why the scene wasn’t set in San Francisco’s equally thriving Japantown, which was completely cleansed of its ethnic Japanese residents after Pearl Harbor.
This production hardly deracinated or disorientalized the opera as it attempted to harmonize it with current standards. It was nice to see so many Asians in the production… as it is to see them welcome in American conservatories, and I don’t mean this facetiously.
From a sideways orientation on the floor, David Angus led 56 players in a sumptuous, dramatic account of the lush, exuberantly appropriated [Is that ok?] oriental fantasy score. Instrumental solos added all the requisite color, especially the multihued percussion (timpani, cymbals, triangle, snare drum, bass drum, bells, tam-tam, Japanese gong, a set of 4-inch Japanese Bells, one keyboard glockenspiel, a “little bell,” tubular bells, and bird whistles), and concertmaster (Orchestra Leader) Annie Rabbat’s stunning tones.
The proscenium arch of the beloved Colonial Theater framed the scenes with architectural splendor and the nearly overflowing auditorium resonated just enough to support the singing and playing without muddying details. Set designer Yu Shibagaki’s nightclub, candied by an oriental gilt frame and a moon symbol barely contained a busy scene with lots of movement and color. Her much-more-detailed prison camp structures depicted the unfortunate conditions in verismo grit. (Did we really need that gunman?) Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew’s lighting seemingly read the minds of the characters as well as making clear references to the passing of the hours. She played upon the cyclorama like a color organist. Stage director Phil Chan fully realized his concept, though he did no favor to Pinkerton by aging him 20 years for the last act and keeping him in his stiff military tunic throughout the poignant last moments. Did his American wife need to be in a red dress? What were we to make of the solo dancer in the Dream Scene?
The eleven singers (six of whom had Asian-sounding names) all made strong dramatic and vocal impressions. The indefatigable soprano Karen Chia-Ling Ho not only soared over the orchestra, but she also put across a mother’s grief without allowing the child actor (a remarkably pliant and tranquil Neko Umphenour) to upstage her. She certainly received the afternoon’s biggest ovation. Alice Chung’s Suzuki developed over the course of the show and achieved almost heroic stature in her interaction with the Sharpless, portrayed with signal warmth and wisdom by baritone Troy Cook. Dominick Chenes a well-regarded lyrico-spinto tenor, managed Pinkerton’s transformation from lovable cad, to lover, and ultimately to hollowed man in ardent and sometimes adoring tones. His Italianate instrument could sob in the grand manner, though his mother, seated in front of us, mentioned his interest in German repertoire. BLO Emerging Artist Junhan Choi, frequently noticed in these pages, projected well as the Commissioner/Registrar. We also enjoyed hearing dramatic tenor Mathew Arnold’s Yamdori. He served as organist down the street from me and was known to raise a beer.
Non-traditionalists should enjoy this production which continues at the Colonial through next Sunday.
Lee Eiseman is the publisher of the Intelligencer