Madama Butterfly

Continuing a season of ladies in distress, the next production by San Diego Opera features one of the most sympathetic opera characters, the young geisha girl called Cio-Cio-San or Madama Butterfly. Her fate can be identified with many similar scenarios following World War II when American veterans returned from Japan leaving behind a Japanese family.

It wasn’t always a situation where the military man didn’t wish to continue a permanent relationship, as in the case of Lieut. Pinkerton in the opera. The government prohibited returning military from bringing their Japanese dependents to America. It was not unusual for the veteran to return to find another romantic interest and completely abandon the overseas wife or mistress, often with child, to their own welfare.

That is basically the plot line for the opera “Madama Butterfly.” In the first act, Lieut. Pinkerton is very gallant in his enthusiasm over maintaining a Japanese bride during his tour of duty in Japan in the late 19th century, not too long after the country had opened its borders to foreign visitors and military alliances. The colorful wedding scene is in full traditional Japanese style with a multitude of Butterfly’s relatives in attendance. It appears to be a true love match, although arranged by the traditional marriage broker with the help of the local American Consul in Nagasaki.

In the second act, we find Butterfly and her servant waiting anxiously for the return of her husband who had been deployed back to the United States three years earlier. The loyal bride is ever hopeful the ship would come in any day while she fends off efforts by the marriage broker to take on a wealthy Japanese husband who had shown an interest in her. Finally the American Consul comes with news that Pinkerton is in fact returning to Japan proving Butterfly’s constant faith in a reunion, despite the doubts of her Japanese associates.

When the Consul attempts to explain to Butterfly that her husband has remarried, she is so excited about his return she doesn’t listen to his disclosure. To prove her devotion, she produces a young child which was such a shock that the Consul quit trying to deliver the bad news about Pinkerton and his new American wife.

The opera ends with a tragic suicide when Butterfly learns of her husband’s abandonment and has to deal with relinquishing her son to his father. In true Japanese custom, she takes her life to save her honor. It’s a wrenching bit of drama.

The original story of tragic Cio-Cio-San went through several versions before it was set to glorious music by Puccini for its opera premiere in 1904 at La Scala.  The French novel author, Julien Viaud a.k.a Pierre Loti, penned a book in 1887 called “Madame Chrysanthemum.” He named the naval officer Loti after himself and “rents” a Japanese bride for whom he cares little. Rather than killing herself when her “husband” abandons her, the girl is found counting the money he paid her and looking for the next liaison.

The book ending was not as dramatic as impresario David Belasco envisioned for his play based on the novel. His version opened on Broadway in 1900 with a loving Cio-Cio-San and the new title “Madama Butterfly.” Even Pinkerton was recast as a remorseful father who cradled the dying geisha for a tearful finale. Puccini saw the play at the opening night in London and went backstage to negotiate rights with Belasco for an opera. The rest is history.

As popular as the opera is today, it’s a surprise to learn that the 1904 premiere was poorly received. Apparently there was a lack of rehearsal time while Puccini was reworking the score. After its disappointing premiere, Puccini revised the opera at least five times until it met great success at the Royal Opera House in London in 1905.

Interesting trivia about the evolution of the opera story for the Butterfly aficionados includes the transition of Pinkerton from a coarse, rude and patronizing navy guy into a romantic lover. Early productions of the opera removed the Japanese slurs and made him a more likeable and conventional tenor. His American wife Kate, another xenophobe in the original version, confronts Butterfly over taking away the child rather than demurely waiting in the garden as we see her today.

Puccini strived to give his opera a blend of Japanese-American culture by incorporating at least seven native folk tunes with refrains from “The Star Spangled Banner.”  Needless to say, “Madama Butterfly” and Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” were not staged in Japan until after World War II. In fact, American opera companies did not perform them during the war years.

The title role is sung by American soprano Latonia Moore who appeared here in 2013 as Aida. She sings regularly with Metropolitan Opera, Royal Opera House and other major opera companies. Making his San Diego Opera debut is Teodor Ilinăi, a Romanian tenor whose career has been primarily in the European countries. Other San Diego debuts are American artists Anthony Clark Evans and J’nai Bridges in the roles of baritone Sharpless and mezzo soprano Suzuki. Both have been affiliated with Chicago Lyric Opera.

The conductor Yves Abel, a Franco-Canadian, appeared here in 2013 for “Daughter of the Regiment.” He is a frequent conductor at Metropolitan Opera, La Scala and the Royal Opera. The set and costumes are new for San Diego from Opéra Montréal.

“Madama Butterfly” is sung in Italian with English text projected over the stage. Performances at the Civic Theatre are at 7:00 p.m. on April 16. April 19 and April 22; 2:00 p.m. on April 24. Ticket information is available at 619 533 7000.

John Patrick Ford is a past president of San Diego Opera and maintains the opera archive at San Diego State University.