Yesterday afternoon in the War Memorial Opera House, the San Francisco Opera (SFO) gave the first of ten performances of Giacomo Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, reviving a production that was first presented in June of 2014. Co-produced by Opera Omaha, staging was directed by Leslie Swackhamer in a visual environment conceived by Jun Kaneko that included costumes, sets, an imaginative single plan for the stage surface, and a feast of video projections. The conductor was Yves Abel, and the SFO Chorus was directed by Ian Robertson.
For the record, Madama Butterfly is SFO’s second most frequently performed opera. Including the current schedule, by the end of the season it will have enjoyed 213 performances over the course of SFO history. That places it behind La bohème (234) and ahead of Tosca (180). (The author will refrain from editorializing over why Puccini has such a solid grip on the top of the list.) It began as a short story by the American author John Luther Long, inspired in part by Madame Chrysanthème, the French novel by Pierre Loti that may have had some basis in fact. David Belasco turned Long’s story into a one-act play (“Madame Butterfly: A Tragedy of Japan”). This is the version that Puccini saw in London and inspired him to create his opera, which was first performed on February 17, 1904 with a libretto (in Italian) by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa.
It goes without saying that both Japan itself and global perception of Japan have changed radically over the century that followed this opera’s first performance, and it is unclear just how much that shift in context should signify. It would not surprise me if Puccini knew even less about Japan than did W. S. Gilbert, whose libretto for The Mikado may have been inspired by a general interest in Japanese artifacts in England at the time of his writing. For that matter, it is unclear how much Puccini knew about the United States. However, most European countries probably grudgingly acknowledged that the actions of Commodore Matthew C. Perry led to the beginning of their own international relations with Japan.
It is thus worth considering the extent to which current productions can approach Madama Butterfly in a broader context of foreign affairs (and not in Mae West’s connotation of that phrase). The first-act duet that Navy Lieutenant B.F. Pinkerton (Vincenzo Costanzo, making his SFO debut) sings with the American consul Sharpless (Anthony Clark Evans, also an SFO debut) about the “vagabond” American sailor positively bristles with the rhetoric of manifest destiny (even if Puccini’s librettist knew little about that concept), not to mention how it resonates with those who would (in the words of a source best left unnamed) “make America great again.” Thus, while Belasco was probably overly melodramatic (and ignorant of Aristotle) when he used the noun “tragedy” in his title, it is entirely understandable that current productions of Madama Butterfly should offer far darker shades of rhetoric than Belasco or Puccini may have had in mind.
Indeed, Swackhamer clearly had no sympathy at all for Pinkerton, seeing him as no better than those American forces that drove their own Native American tribes off of their land. Furthermore, the audience got her message. Pinkerton’s role may still be in the “romantic tenor” genre; but Costanzo had to endure a vigorous round of booing when he took his bow and the end of the opera.
Perhaps, however, what made Swackhamer’s conception of the narrative have so much impact was the way in which she deflected the plot from the usual protagonists, choosing, instead, to reflect on the plight of the “servants.” I use the scare quotes because Sharpless is, after all, a “public servant;” and we observe him in terms of the “services” he provides to servicemen visiting the city in which he is stationed. On the other side we then not only see Butterfly as she is performed by (Lianna Haroutounian) but also as her character is observed by her maid Suzuki (Adler Fellow Zanda Švēde). (Before the opera began General Director Matthew Shilvock announced that Švēde had been dealing with a cold but had decided to perform. Suzuki’s part was small enough to allow Švēde plenty of off-stage time but substantial enough for us to enjoy all that she made of it.) Neither the libretto nor Haroutounian’s interpretation shies away from the sad fact that Butterfly is far more deluded than she should be (although it is often overlooked that she is only fifteen years old). Suzuki is there to serve as a “reality check;” and Swackhamer’s direction made this sympathetically clear.
This brings us to Kaneko’s images. (Incidentally, Kaneko received by far the most enthusiastic cheers during the final bows.) All of his ideas seem to walk a tightrope between depiction and abstraction. This may well have been his way of dealing with how much of the libretto hinges on distorted perception, and there were any number of images that confronted those distortions head-on. (His conception on the moon when Butterfly and Pinkerton have their first night after the wedding is right up their with the grotesqueries of the Pierrot Lunaire poems.) In addition, there are narrative qualities that come into play with no shortage of signification when the images are the only visuals on stage during the extended instrumental sections.
This brings us to the music itself. This is a score that is as rich in detail for the instruments as it is accommodating to the singers’ voices. There is, of course, the usual full measure of lush sonorities, which is probably a key factor in sustaining this opera’s popularity. This raises the question of whether or not Puccini was at all influenced by Richard Wagner. Arguments have been made that Puccini had appropriated Wagner’s leitmotiv technique in Tosca; and, while that may be a bit of a stretch, it is hard to avoid thinking that at least a few Wagnerian tropes may have worked their way into the instrumental writing for Butterfly. Mind you, no one would confuse Butterfly with Brünnhilde. However, there was at least one subtle hint of the latter’s immolation prior to Butterfly’s suicide; and, to these ears at least, it did not sound as if Abel’s conducting was trying to hide the cross-reference!