BWW Review: A Beautiful 'BUTTERFLY' Alights in St. Louis
(This review first appeared on KDHX, St. Louis.)
The wonderful Opera Theater of St. Louis has opened its forty-second season with a deeply satisfying production of Giacomo Puccini's 'Madame Butterfly'. Opera Theatre has grown to be among the world's first rank of opera producers. Audiences and reviewers come from all across America and from five continents around the globe. This production of Butterfly is right up there with their best.
As every eighth-grader knows (or should know) Commodore Perry (attended by several gunboats) opened Japan to European trade in 1854. In the decades following, European arts became virtually drunk with the craze of "Japonisme". Japanese prints, woodblocks, watercolors, kimonos, fans, screens, etc. were wildly popular, and the great artists of Impressionism were, almost to a man, deeply influenced by Japanese art -- Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Monet, Renoir, and especially van Gogh.
Literature and drama were likewise affected: "Madame Butterfly" appeared in 1898 as a short story by John Luther Long; in 1900 the great American impresario David Belasco adapted it as a one-act play; and it became Puccini's opera in 1904.
John Luther Long said of himself that he was "a sentimentalist and a feminist and proud of it." Of course the story would appeal to Puccini, the most sentimental of all composers of opera. Audiences are sentimental too, it seems, because Butterfly is the sixth most frequently produced opera in the world.
You know the story. Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, of the USS Abraham Lincoln, is stationed in Nagasaki. Besmitten with a young geisha, he enters into a Japanese "temporary marriage" with her, never thinking of it as anything but a convenience. But the girl, Cio-cio-san (called "Butterfly"), is innocent and truly in love with Pinkerton. She takes the marriage very seriously indeed-she even becomes a Christian. When Pinkerton's tour of duty ends and he returns to America, Butterfly-impoverished and rejected by her family-spends her days dreaming of his return. She also gives birth to his son-the image of his father. In earlier translations the boy is named "Trouble", but more recently he is called "Sorrow" (a wise choice given the wry double entendre of "Trouble"). Butterfly says that when Pinkerton returns the child's name will change to "Joy".
Set designer Laura Jellinek and costumer Candace Donnelly give us quite the perfect visual world for Madame Butterfly. A small iconically Japanese house-with sliding panels of paper and bamboo-sits on a rocky hillside overlooking the sea. In a stroke of genius Ms. Jellinek constructs her hillside out of what seems to be miles of Japanese printed fabric-or perhaps crumpled Origami paper-dark gray with a small white pattern a million times repeated. The folds tumble down most beautifully. We breathe in this world and we are filled with that distinctively spare Japanese beauty.
Ms. Donnelly's costumes are beautiful and authentic. (The kimonos are indeed from Japan.) This authenticity drives deep: there are, surprisingly but appropriately, several layers of gown beneath the lovely kimono. And everything is true to period: the Japanese men wear Oriental gowns, but sometimes Western hats-a derby, a topper, a straw boater. Pinkerton's uniforms are precisely correct for the turn-of-the-century American navy officer-unfamiliarly unadorned, nary an epaulette. And Pinkerton's wife, Kate, is a simply striking image in a pristine white traveling suit. Quite wonderful.
What a glorious collection of voices! Soprano Rena Harms, as Butterfly, and tenor Michael Brandenburg, as Pinkerton, are a fine match, and they do glorious service to Puccini's gorgeous melodies. Their love duet, which closes Act One, is weepingly beautiful. Puccini makes it climb and climb-rather like Wagner's "Liebestod"-and these two twining voices sing it splendidly.
At the opening of Act Two Butterfly sings to her servant, Suzuki, of her irrepressible faith in Pinkerton's return. "One fine day" (Un bel di) is the most famous aria in this opera-and perhaps in all of Puccini. It is certainly the one opera melody that I always find myself whistling. Miss Harms triumphs in it. It's a glory.
I do believe, though, that this Butterfly lacks just a pinch of the needed innocence. The girl is fifteen. Yes, she's been a geisha, but that merely means she sings and dances to please men; she is not a prostitute. She is called "dear little baby wife of mine, dear little orange blossom", "poor little creature", "that child, that pretty flower". Yet Miss Harms' eyes are sometimes knowing and flirtatious. But this is a tiny quibble. Her performance is superb.