Madame Butterfly | Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

You might say it’s a rom-com with a strong dose of social justice. Or you might say it’s Miss Saigon without the helicopter and with better music.

Sometimes people complain about opera plots being too complicated and ridiculous to follow, but that complaint can’t be laid at the feet of Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly, the first opera in the 2017 Opera Theatre Saint Louis season. The heart of the story is simplicity itself: Two people have a relationship, and one takes it seriously while the other doesn’t. The significance of the story is deepened by the fact that one person—the one who doesn’t care—has all the advantages over the other in terms of age, gender, nationality, affluence, and experience. You might say it’s a rom-com with a strong dose of social justice. Or you might say it’s Miss Saigon without the helicopter and with better music.

The libretto of Madame Butterfly is based on David Belasco’s play Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan, so you don’t go in expecting a happy ending. Plus, foreshadowing (see, I did learn something from English class!) in the first act creates a sense of impending doom that is amply paid off in the second. When we first meet her, Butterfly, aka Cio-Cio-San (Rena Harms) is a 15-year-old geisha who’s become smitten with Pinkerton (Michael Brandenburg), an American naval officer. The story takes place in the early 20th century when, according to a note in the program booklet, “Western military men stationed in Japan were allowed by Japanese law to enter into temporary ‘marriages,’ which were nullified if the husband was absent for 30 days.” That’s exactly what Pinkerton has in mind, despite the warnings of the American consul Sharpless (Christopher Magiera) that he’s playing with fire. Butterfly, by contrast, thinks he truly loves her, despite the warnings of her dedicated maid Suzuki (Renee Rapier) and the disapproval of her family, and she’s absolutely and totally in love with him.

Of course Pinkerton eventually sails away, promising to return when robins build their nests. And of course he doesn’t, leaving Butterfly to ask Sharpless if perhaps robins build their nests at a different time of year in America. Next to Butterfly, Sharpless might be the most tragic figure in the opera, as he’s torn between his own basic decency and desire to protect a young woman from being hurt, and his official role as consul, which requires that he prioritize the well-being of Americans. The structural inequalities that created this tragic situation are beyond his control, and you can decide for yourself if he makes matters better or worse by becoming involved.

Because of her relationship with Pinkerton, Butterfly is abandoned by her family, and when the second act begins, is living in dire poverty with Suzuki. She also has a blonde-haired, blue-eyed son who she has raised to love America, and she firmly believes Pinkerton will come back to them. He does return, but with an American wife (Anush Avetisyan), and it’s not Butterfly he wants to take back with him.

Madame Butterfly has one of Puccini’s most beautiful scores, and the principals do full justice to his soaring melodies, as does the orchestra conducted by Michael Christie. (I was marveling at how rich a sound Puccini produces with just a few solo voices, then realized it was due to his favorite trick of doubling the voices with the orchestra.) Harms, who has also performed the role with the English National Opera, is a superb Butterfly, delivering both vocally and dramatically in the opera’s central role. She also gets the opera’s best-known aria, the tragic “Un bel di” (“One fine day”), in which she affirms her faith that Pinkerton will come back to her. Mezzo-soprano Rapier provides a strong counterweight as Suzuki, whose role is key to the drama unfolding in the second act. Brandenberg (tenor) and Magiera (baritone) also shine in their roles as the story’s villain and well-meaning but ineffectual functionary, respectively.

Laura Jellinek’s unit set, constructed largely of origami paper, is true to the Japanese setting and allow for quick changes of scene thanks to the use of portable furniture that can easily be brought onto stage and removed. The central feature, which suggests a traditional Japanese house with sliding doors, is used quite effectively. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the stage turntable, which was employed far too often, many times apparently for its own sake rather than to illuminate anything happening on stage. | Sarah Boslaugh 

Madame Butterfly is presented in repertory by the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis through June 24. Performances are at the Loretto-Hilton Center (130 Edgar Road, at Big Bend) in Webster Groves. Tickets are available at a wide range of prices, with special deals available for many groups including students, educators, and military personnel. Further information about the season, ticket availability, and special events is available from the company’s website or by calling 314-961-0644. 

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